Most travellers book accommodation after looking at online travel reviews.
How does TripAdvisor identify the estimated 15% fake travel reviews, and remove them?
What law applies to websites which host fake online travel reviews?
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), has published a Supplier Guide for online travel review platforms such as TripAdvisor to outline how to maintain the integrity of their sites. It is called: What you need to know about: Online reviews – a guide for business and review platforms; published in November 2013.
TripAdvisor has procedures in place to comply with the ACCC legal guide. TripAdvisor is the world’s largest travel website, sharing over 100 million travel reviews posted by travellers covering 1.5 million hospitality businesses. Every month 260 million visitors reference TripAdvisor reviews on places to ‘stay, eat and play’ before booking a hotel, resort, restaurant or tourist attraction.
This is an outline of the ACCC legal guide, and what TripAdvisor does to comply.
Detecting and removing fake travel reviews
Hoteliers and restaurateurs know that positive online travel reviews are powerful marketing tools. They encourage guests to post reviews on the excellent service and experience they provide.
But some are tempted to post fake travel reviews either to promote their hotel or restaurant or to drive guests away from a competitor. Fake travel reviews also concern the website host because they affect the trustworthiness of the online review platform.
How do you spot a fake travel review?
Fake reviews raise suspicions because they are overly enthusiastic or critical or contain incorrect facts. Illustrations:
- ‘Can definitely NOT recommend’ or ‘This place is a DUMP’ [the capital letters point to a fake review posted by a competitor]
- ‘This place is fantastic! The rooms are BEAUTIFUL and the staff very attentive and wonderful!! [the exclamation marks point to a fake review posted by the hotel on itself]
- The room descriptions correspond word-for-word with the hotel website but the location and surrounds of the hotel are factually inaccurate [word-for-word descriptions raise suspicion, factual inaccuracies show it to be fake]
- ‘The trains came past the hotel every 20 minutes’ [fake because the nearest railway track was many miles away]
- A review of a one night visit posted 15 months afterwards [probably fake - does a genuine guest wait this long?]
- ‘I loved the view from the room’ [probably a fake paid review because the style is eye-witness. Reviewers say ‘The view was breathtaking’]
How are fake travel reviews published?
Fake reviews are usually published anonymously on review websites.
If a fake travel review is published by a hotel, it is known as ‘astroturfing’. Illustration: In June 2013, it was discovered that 105 reviews had been published on TripAdvisor by an Accor and Sofitel manager over several years. The reviews were a mixture of positive reviews on its hotels and negative reviews on competitors. The fake reviews came to light when the assumed name used by the manager to post the reviews was traced to the hotel manager. The reviews were removed and the manager was dismissed. The hotel retained its listing.
Some fake travel reviews are paid reviews. Illustration: In February 2014, Tourism Industry Association New Zealand warned against emails from a Fake Review Optimiser offering to post as many as 20 false reviews for $297.
What action does the ACCC recommend to online review platforms to identify fake reviews?
An online review platform which hosts fake reviews is misleading the public, in breach of the Australian Consumer Law.
The ACCC states that there is no precise formula for identifying fake reviews. It points to indicators such as a ‘spike’ in reviews, the same email or IP addresses, using ‘marketing-speak’ writing styles, and copying the same marketing language as the business uses.
The ACCC recommends that online review platforms adopt both a proactive approach – using automated or manual internal systems to screen a review before it is published, and a reactive approach – relying on complaints information after the review is published.
How does TripAdvisor deal with fake reviews?
TripAdvisor is an online review platform which publishes reviews contributed by ‘everyday’ consumers, relying on the ‘wisdom of the crowd’.
TripAdvisor takes a proactive approach. Before submitting a review, the reviewer must state:
I certify that this review is based on my own experience and is my genuine opinion of this establishment, and that I have no personal or business relationship with this establishment, and have not been offered any incentive or payment originating from the establishment to write this review. I understand that TripAdvisor has a zero-tolerance policy on fake reviews.
The review is screened by technology and by editors before it is published, for between 24 and 48 hours. It is moderated to ensure that it is family-friendly, is posted to the correct business and complies with guidelines.
Hotel owners may use the ‘Reporting Potential Blackmail’ procedure - when a guest threatens to write a negative review unless a demand for a refund, upgrade, or other request is met. This is used to block publication of the guest’s review.
TripAdvisor also takes a reactive approach. Because it receives 60 contributions every minute, TripAdvisor does not fact-check reviews. It relies upon travellers and businesses to report inappropriate reviews.
Businesses should monitor reviews and use the ‘Report an inappropriate review’ procedure to request removal of a review.
To increase the chances of removal, businesses should highlight factual inaccuracies which indicate that the reviewer did not visit; and highlight defamatory comment, which it calls ‘non family-friendly comment’, such as profanity, threats, prejudiced comments, hate speech, sexually explicit language, or other content that is not appropriate for the community.
If TripAdvisor fails to remove a fake review, a complaint should be made to the ACCC.
What can a business do about a negative (but not fake) review?
The ACCC recommends that businesses be provided with an opportunity to post a public response to negative reviews which do not qualify to be removed as fake reviews.
Hospitality businesses should look at all reviews as first hand market research, as an opportunity to engage with the public, and to demonstrate that they take customer service seriously.
TripAdvisor has a ‘Write a Management Response’ procedure. It suggests that the business responds quickly, is courteous and professional, addresses the specific issues and highlights the positives.
What else does the ACCC recommend to travel review platforms and hospitality businesses?
Incentivised consumer reviews
The ACCC is concerned that incentives offered to consumers in exchange for their reviews may lead to biased, inflated or misleading reviews.
The ACCC recommends that incentives offered by the review platform to reviewers are prominently disclosed on the review page. TripAdvisor has a non-financial incentive scheme for reviewers, called review badges. Review badges are awarded for both positive and negative reviews. The contributor’s photo, reviewer status and number of reviews appear on the review.
The ACCC is concerned that incentives offered by businesses do not result in ‘inflated reviews’ being published. The ACCC recommends that if the review platform notices a spike in consumer reviews, then it should ask the business to disclose any incentive offered.
A business is entitled to offer incentives, such as vouchers or sending a link asking for a review after the stay, so long as they are offered to all consumers and for both positive and negative reviews.
The omission of credible consumer reviews, inflated (average) reviews and the ‘big picture’
Most online review platforms use a star rating system to give the ‘big picture’. The more reviews, the more reliable the rating. TripAdvisor uses a ‘bubble rating’ scale of 1 to 5, which it displays prominently under the name of the business reviewed, together with the number of reviews upon which this is based.
Because a body of reviews creates the overall impression, the ACCC states that the review platform should not selectively remove or edit reviews. But it is not misleading to remove fake, offensive, defamatory or irrelevant reviews.
Disclosing commercial arrangements with reviewed businesses
Most review platforms have a business model of deriving revenue through paid advertising or ‘sponsorship links’, rather than charging membership or listing fees to businesses or access fees to users. TripAdvisor has a basic listing which is free of charge. TripAdvisor allows hospitality businesses to ‘upgrade’ by paying for a Business Listing which has contact information and links for bookings, a slide show for photographs and a more prominent display.
The ACCC accepts these commercial arrangements, so long as they are prominently disclosed, are transparent and do not impact upon the content and presentation of the review. The TripAdvisor website pages display the businesses reviewed on the left hand side of the page, and the ranking according to its algorithm. The paid Business Listings are displayed separately in columns such as ‘Best deals:’ on the right hand side or in shaded boxes which are marked ‘sponsored links’. This satisfies the ACCC requirements.
The ACCC Guide for online review platforms have not been tested in legal proceedings in Australia.
TripAdvisor has been mentioned in passing in 6 Court judgments in Australia, but not as a party to legal proceedings.
Only the future can tell how the Australian Courts will deal with fake online travel reviews.
Hospitality businesses should regularly monitor reviews and use the procedures available to request that fake reviews be removed and respond to both positive and negative reviews.