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What I have written in the past, many times, about how to safely navigate TripAdvisor just does not work anymore. That is because – unless my eyes deceive me – I am seeing an unprecedented avalanche of false positive reviews written by hotel sales managers, GMs, even cooks (excuse me, chefs) – or their friends and co-conspirators.
Which has prompted my rethink of how a savvy consumer needs read TripAdvisor.
My guess: we are seeing a perverse outcome of the old management saw, what gets measured gets done. Tell a cook that he will hit the bricks if his TripAdvisor rating stays in the gutter and, guess what, it gets lifted. How? The fastest way is to cheat.
Ditto a sales manager or GM who is taking guff from asset managers. The latter should be peeved when a hotel that, say, has claimed to be “world class” cannot even manage to hold the top spot in a small tertiary market that is unpopulated by the perennial all stars (Aman, Four Seasons, etc). If you cannot beat nobody, you aren’t word class, QED, thus the screaming – threats probably of bonuses withheld or firings – and then along come the fake reviews.
How? That’s easy. A struggling cook might form a mutual defense alliance with cooking school classmates. All sworn to secrecy. But as need arises – to counter a few bad reviews – they weigh in with glowing comments and the deed is done. The negative reviews are buried under the weight of fake positives.
Sales managers and GMs can do likewise in their circles.
Other GMs probably are just posting their own fakes, using the many Internet appliances we all have and accessing TripAdvisor via any of the many public WiFi networks at coffee shops, stores, restaurants and, yes, hotels of course.
Set up a handful of email addresses at the free services and you are halfway to a bank of bogus TripAdvisor accounts.
TripAdvisor of course says its armies of machines are ever alert for fakes and will track them down. Punishments range up to placement of “A large red penalty notice, explaining that the property’s reviews are suspicious may appear on the listing page.” I believe I have seen that only once.
I believe I should see it a lot more often.
Mind you, I still insist: TripAdvisor is the best place to get credible commentary about hotels. It is vastly better than professional travel writing – just about all those reviews result from typically undisclosed “comped” (free) trips. As for bloggers, forget about it. The FTC is looking to crack down on undisclosed blogger compensation, including freebies, but so far the blogosphere is a wild west of corruption and mendacity when it comes to hotel write ups.
That is why you need to know how to carefully – smartly – read TripAdvisor reviews.
First: discard the outliers. Some reviews are just too positive or too negative. When I see “Chef XYZ should have his own restaurant in Manhattan” – and said cook would struggle for acclaim in Manhattan, Kansas – I know it was written by his mom.
Ditto for a review of a hotel – one that fares well overall – that finds no good whatsoever and insists there are bedbugs, mold, theft, and a cavalcade of bad things. Is this reviewer lying? Maybe, maybe not. But even if it’s the truth, perhaps the establishment just had an epicly bad day that won’t likely be repeated.
Look for patterns. When the same things – positive or negatives – are said many times they probably are true.
Which leads to the next precaution: if there are under 100 reviews – or perhaps you want a higher number; 1000 is reasonable – stop right there. The data set is too small to be reliable. There is truth in numbers when it comes to online reviews.
Now for the new advice: ignore all reviews written by posters with under 10 reviews. Just don’t read them.
In looking at a particular hotel that has been climbing in its ranking, I noticed that of the most recent 10 reviews, four were written by posters with 5, 4, 1, and 5 total reviews. They also had not posted photos.
All fakes? I do not know of course. But were I spending my money on a hotel room, I’d bet they are fakes – and would ignore them accordingly.
My hope of course is that TripAdvisor wakes up its algorithms, puts its machines on high alert, and begins a search and destroy mission for hotels that are stuffing the ballot box.
As travelers we need TripAdvisor – but we need a TripAdvisor that we can count on.
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