Sunday 26 January 2020

TripAdvisor under fire over fraud detection

Oliver Smith

New evidence of hoteliers attempting to manipulate their ratings has increased the pressure on TripAdvisor to improve its screening procedures.

Pressure is growing on TripAdvisor, the travel review website, to improve its screening procedures following the emergence of new evidence of hoteliers attempting to manipulate their ratings and of fake reviews going up unnoticed.

A restaurant that is not even open is currently ranked 17th best in London, and two Telegraph Travel readers have been offered £180 to delete a negative view they posted of a hotel in Gloucestershire.

For the Love of Life at Tony’s was a “pop-up” restaurant that appeared briefly in Croydon last summer. After just nine reviews published over two weeks, it was ranked by TripAdvisor as the 11th best in the capital, out of nearly 10,000. Seven months later – long since closed – it had fallen to 76th.

Then, in an attempt to test TripAdvisor’s filtering systems, Kwikchex, a reputation-management company, submitted three fake reviews of the restaurant on the same day (February 17), two of which were identical. Just over a month later, the reviews were still on the site and the restaurant had risen to 17th best in London.

Kwikchex, which has frequently criticised TripAdvisor’s approach on behalf of disgruntled business owners, said the evidence provided further proof that screening procedures were inadequate.

“Such case studies blow apart TripAdvisor’s claims about sophisticated filtering systems, and illustrate how unreliable its reviews are,” said Chris Emmins, founder of KwikChex, which – since 2010 – has been campaigning for TripAdvisor to accept only reviews from authenticated patrons rather than anonymous users.

Mr Emmins said the ease with which Kwikchex had manipulated the site exposed “the ridiculous nature of [TripAdvisor’s] 'Popularity Index’ and the rankings system that is so important to businesses.”

A hotel or restaurant’s rise or fall in the rankings on TripAdvisor is said to have a huge and often immediate impact on business. Two more case studies can be seen to illustrate just how seriously businesses regard their ranking.

David and Karen Fielding, a retired couple from Staffordshire, spent three nights at The Wyndham Arms in the Forest of Dean last month. On March 1 they published a review on TripAdvisor, criticising the “bland” food, “dusty” rooms, “noisy” fellow guests and “brusque” staff.

They were later contacted by the hotel’s manager, who offered them a refund of £180 – on condition that they delete their review. One email said: “It would have no benefit if we refunded the money yet the review remained after compensating you [sic].”

Mr and Mrs Fielding, regular TripAdvisor users, rejected the offer. A statement from the hotel said: “It was felt that by offering a refund then the customer would be recompensed and therefore satisfied. We only felt it fair that the complaint should then be withdrawn.”

In a third incident, which adds weight to claims that the website is often and easily manipulated, a glowing review was submitted of a luxury Caribbean resort – which we are unable to name for legal reasons. In a subsequent posting, however, the writer said that she was an investor in the hotel and had been encouraged by its owners to publish the first review. She also alleged that “at least half” of the other reviews of the hotel had been written by fellow investors.

The owners deny that, but the general manager of the hotel appears to admit, in a response to one review, that the practice took place. Using the “management response” option, he said that “all the reviews written by investors have now been removed from TripAdvisor”.

A statement from TripAdvisor said: “We take the authenticity of our reviews very seriously and have numerous methods to ensure the legitimacy of content.

“In addition to our highly sophisticated fraud-detection systems and our dedicated team of content specialists, our large and passionate community of more than 50 million monthly visitors also help report suspicious content, which we encourage and welcome.

“Attempts to manipulate TripAdvisor are extremely rare, as the vast majority of hoteliers understand the tremendous risk to their reputation and their business.”

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