So Now Do You Trust TripAdvisor?


By Robert McGarvey


TripAdvisor has brought out the megaphones, hired the brass band, and is busily proclaiming that its fraud team has made TripAdvisor reviews a safe place for us to find the information we need to book the right accommodations. It’s a story with a lot of fake reviews, even an arrest.

Should we break out the bubbly?  Maybe not yet.

TripAdvisor crowed online: “Back in 2015, our dedicated team of fraud investigators identified a new illegal business in Italy called PromoSalento that was offering to write fake reviews for hospitality businesses to boost their profile on TripAdvisor. Several Italian businesses forwarded the emails to us, which kick-started an investigation that would ultimately see the person behind PromoSalento sent to jail!”

Tnooz, a trade pub, reported on this outcome: “In June of this year, the Criminal Court of Lecce found the owner guilty of using a fake identity to commit fraud. He has been sentenced to 9 months in prison and will have to pay 8,000 euros in costs and damages.”

Posting fake reviews is in fact illegal in some of Europe.

Question: Is it illegal to pay for fake reviews in the US? It’s not clearly illegal although posting such reviews has and could result in litigation that would be expensive to fend off.

What I can say is that I have seen numerous solicitations to pay writers to create fake reviews. Rates, incidentally, are paltry – often $10 or under. Sometimes $5. 

But for the right writer – particularly in the right low cost country – $5 might be a decent wage for a few minutes work.

Often, too, I have spotted an avalanche of fake reviews posted by hotel staff or maybe their friends.  

TripAdvisor says they have their eyes open for this and they point to their detailed work to hunt down the Italian behind the paid reviews in his country. “Over the course of our investigation, our technical analysis identified and then either blocked or removed more than 1,000 attempts by PromoSalento to submit reviews to the TripAdvisor site on hundreds of different properties.

“PromoSalento attempted to avoid our scrutiny by regularly changing their usernames and email addresses, but our fraud detection processes use a suite of advanced technologies to evaluate hundreds of review attributes such as IP addresses, browser types and even the screen resolution of a reviewer’s device. Based on that analysis, we were able to see a trail of digital and behavioral ‘breadcrumbs’ that led our team straight back to PromoSalento.”

Hold your applause.

What TripAdvisor did is good – that’s obvious – but it also did it to protect its core functionality.  A Gresham’s Law applies online where bad reviews drive out good and so TripAdvisor cannot allows its service to be overwhelmed by bad reviews.

Particularly not when it is all so blatant.

Just a few problems that lead me to be restrained in saluting TripAdvisor.

First, there are many ways to buy fake reviews that probably will sidestep algorithms that hunt for fraud – e.g., paying writers only when their review had been posted by them and gone live. That leaves no trail back to the buyer and, from what I hear, the market for fake reviews remains brisk.

Second, there are – to my eyes – obviously fake reviews generated internally that still pop up with regularity.  TripAdvisor doubtless has algorithms that hunt for fakes. But give a hotel employee a VPN and imagine how many reviews he/she can post.

TripAdvisor itself has warned hotel employees to cool it.  That tells you the problem is bad.

It gets worse, a lot worse.

The bigger problem: TripAdvisor itself has a history of deleting negative reviews that aren’t fake, anything but. They just stung hotel and restaurant employees who insisted they come down.  And they did. Some of those deleted reviews in fact alleged rapes by hotel employees.

That is information a potential guest very much would want to know.

TripAdvisor of course has said its corrected its behaviors, even putting in a badge notification for establishments that may have had allegation of rapes and assaults.

Is that good enough for you?

Know your rights. Congress last year passed the Consumer Review Fairness Act which makes it illegal to threaten to sue consumers or seek to penalize them financially for negative online reviews.  

The FTC has said it will slap companies that ignore the law.  

Personally I want more from the FTC.

But, mainly, I want more from TripAdvisor.  A reliable review site would be a very good thing in the fragmented hotel business – and a marvelous thing for those of us who travel internationally where, in many countries, independents are the only choices.  So there isn’t that same brand promise that guides us to many hotels in the US.

I want TripAdvisor to work.  

I’m just unconvinced that it does.

Ask me again in six months. TripAdvisor just has announced a massive shift into professional content and a move away from consumer created content.  Is that the answer?

Color me skeptical.  A lot of “professional” content is anything but. And these days it proliferates like kudzu. But ask anyway in six months because maybe my answer will be cheerier.

Or maybe not.


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