Website Reviews Under The Spotlight – TripAdvisor Examined

Just read on the BBC that the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) are investigating an allegation from KwikChex that some reviews on the holiday guide website Tripadvisor may be fake. We are not talking about a few possible fake reviews, the BBC state that KwikCheck have suggested that 5-10 million reviews could be fake. That is a lot of typing that someone / some people may have done to bolster positive reviews.

KwikCheck are challenging the following statements on the TripAdvisor website:

  • ‘reviews you can trust’
  • ‘read reviews from real travellers’
  • ‘TripAdvisor offers trusted advice from real travellers’
  • ‘more than 50 million honest travel reviews and opinions from real travellers around the world’ 

Although TripAdvisor has around 45 million web visitors each month it is suggested that many of the reviews left are not made by customers at all, but by businesses to help improve their ratings on the TripAdvisor website. KwiCheck’s main concern is that as TripAdvisor does not verify the reviews left by customers there is no proof that they statements that they make can be proved.

Who are KwikCheck?

My first thought on reading this article on the BBC was “Who are KwikCheck?”. Why are the publicly making these allegations (are they allegations or suggestions – both terms are used on the BBC page?). Only earlier today I was reading some notes from Matt Cutts about link bait (producing content that prompts websites to link to your business) and two of the popular ways to do this is to create a negative story about a business or to do some research that others find interesting. This story ticks both of those boxes. So, who are KwikCheck and do they have anything to gain by making these suggestions?

KwikChex – Online Reputation Services

According to their website descrtiption on Google, they invite us to “Become a member of an inspiring reputation initiative that you can use to publicise and protect your business.” We do not know anything else at the moment as their whole website redirects to Google homepage. This is a sign that maybe they are already getting a lot more traffic than their server can handle so have taking emergency measures and redirecting people back to Google (although a redirect to their Twitter page would be more sensible).

kwicheck search in Google

Why make fake reviews?

Many people make their final decision based on reviews. It is natural that many reviews will be negative as people tend to leave reviews after a bad experience and forget about the website where they booked after a good experience. So some companies may add their own good reviews to give a better balance.

How to spot a fake review?

This is the hard part. First, how do we define a fake review? If a customer gives some positive feedback in an email, a telephone call or in person, can this be turned into a review by the company marketing department? Is this fake or just a manipulation of the system?

Who is making the fake reviews?

What the ASA may find hard to pinpoint is the source of any reviews. Investigation is not going to be easy. There are really 4 “places” a review could come from:

  1. From the Trip Advisor offices – they may have added reviews to some holiday pages internally in response to positive feedback
  2. From the “advertising” business
  3. From the client
  4. From a marketing company
  5. From a competitor – some negative reviews can also be fake!

The only reviews which can easily be classed as suspicious (not fake) are the ones that come direct from the Trip Advisor IP address or the business which is being reviewed. Many businesses may not have a business ISP though and use dynamic IP addresses which will make investigations more difficult.

When a client leaves a genuine review from their computer then the IP address will be pretty random, so this could be a strong indicator of a real review. However, if a business outsourced its marketing and SEO then a marketing company may also be leaving reviews. If this is the case it will be hard to spot by IP addresses as they would often look like real customers. Also, neither Trip Advisor nor the business being reviewed may be aware that this is part of the marketing strategy being used.

There is also the risk that some negative reviews could be fake. A competitor may write bad reviews of another business in the hope that some customers then look at their own holidays.

TripAdvisor take reviews seriously

TripAdvisor have stated that they take their reviews very seriously and have spent a lot of time and money on reducing fraudulent reviews.

“We have numerous methods to ensure the legitimacy of the content on TripAdvisor. We devote thousands of hours each year to battling fraud and improving our fraud detection efforts to ensure the integrity of our content” Angus Struthers at TripAdvisor told the BBC.

Hopefully we will hear about the outcome of this soon.

Fake Reviews are Commonplace on the Internet

Of course, TripAdvisor is by no means the only company that may receive some fake reviews. The Internet is plagued by fake reviews. Businesses need positive reviews today to win new business but people rarely take the time to write a positive review.

When was the last time you wrote to a company to thank them for the wonderful service and excellent product that you received? Probably never? Have you ever written a letter of complaint or made a phone call in response to a bad service? Probably!

It is human nature to complain when things go wrong but get on with life when things turn out great. It could be argued that it is actually fair to provide a more balanced selection of reviews for a product or service as only showing those left by upset customers is not a real representation of the overall good quality that many other clients receive.

Ultimately a fake review is going to be hard to prove and no company has the resources to verify all positive reviews. How could you verify a positive review other than by asking the reviewer to include proof of purchase with each review and then cross checking that with the business – and without infringing on anybody’s privacy in the process. And if a company is making those fake reviews they would just make fake order numbers too.

My advice for anyone ordering online is to read the reviews but always make your own judgement based on a combination of factors. A lot of bad reviews can mean that it is a popular product, and a popular product may actually be good! The Internet is a confusing creature.

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