Thursday, February 20, 2014
TripAdvisor Can Be A Trip From And To Hell....
It's the hotel review website that millions use to help choose their holiday. But... Can you trust a single word on Trip Advisor?
By sharing all your experiences, you’re helping other travellers make better choices and plan their dream trips. That’s what you are told before posting a review of a hotel or restaurant on the website TripAdvisor.
But better choices and dream trips don’t always come into it.
You might just as easily be unleashing your venom on a rival establishment.
Or talking up your own enterprise. Or simply settling a few scores.
What’s certain is that even those of us who are suspicious of TripAdvisor, and know deep down that we’re not getting the full story, find it hard to resist reading comments from happy or not-so-happy anonymous customers before booking a holiday, hotel room or even a restaurant table.
And there’s never a shortage of opinions on offer.
TripAdvisor receives 70 of them every minute, with more than 100 million reviews on the site at any one time. It has around 230 million online visitors each month and lists nearly three million hotels, restaurants and other attractions, along with eight million accompanying photographs.
This year, TripAdvisor — which bills itself as the world’s biggest travel site and employs 1,800 staff — is on course to achieve revenues in excess of $1 billion.
The trouble is that there is no way of proving how many of its reviews are genuine and how many are the work of fraudsters with axes to grind or hoteliers blowing their own trumpets.
It’s a win-win for TripAdvisor, but could it be a lose-lose for the rest of us?
After all, it’s further evidence of an encroaching X Factor culture where coming top of a popularity contest is mistaken for real talent.
The firm was launched 13 years ago by an American, Steve Kaufer, who remains company boss, above a pizza shop in Newtown, Massachusetts
TripAdvisor’s latest embarrassment involved a ‘simply divine’ and ‘mind-blowing’ restaurant in Brixham, Devon, called Oscar’s, where scuba divers were on hand to catch any particular fish that customers wanted served up on their plates.
This ‘irresistible’ floating restaurant was built into the hull of an old fishing boat off New Quay Lane, but moved with the tide.
The food was so delicious (‘impossible to get seafood any fresher than this … something bordering on sorcery,’ said a TripAdvisor review) that, despite sounding slightly implausible, customers started turning up in the hope of getting a table, even after being warned by email that it was booked out months in advance.
They went hungry — because Oscar’s did not exist. There were only a few bins and, latterly, some disgruntled foodies in New Quay Lane, but no restaurant.
A hoaxer had invented Oscar’s and posted the reviews himself to expose the TripAdvisor’s failings. The culprit, a businessman hiding behind the online pseudonym Oscar Parrot, said he wanted to see how long it took TripAdvisor to work out his submission was a fake.
"I was also aware that various establishments had contacted TripAdvisor about obvious fake reviews, but the response always seemed to be: “Tough luck!” ’ he told me.
His elaborate hoax follows the story of a hotel executive called Peter Hook, from Sydney, Australia, who was exposed in May of writing glowing reviews for his own hotels while castigating rivals. Using the pseudonym ‘Tavore’, the communications manager of Accor Hotels in Asia wrote 106 reviews about hotels in 43 cities.
Last year, the website was told to change the wording on its review page, which claimed that it offered 'trusted and honest' opinions
Once, after arriving in Britain, he raved about the Novotel Manchester Centre (‘the staff were fantastic and friendly’). He also liked the Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa on Denarau Island, where he noted that ‘families from the adjacent Hilton and Sheraton hotels were sneaking in to use the Sofitel pool’.
Needless to say, the Novotel Manchester and Sofitel Fiji are part of the Accor Hotels group, while Hilton and Sheraton are competitors.
TripAdvisor’s rules make clear that reviews ‘written by ownership or management, including past employees or anyone associated with/related to employees’ of the hotel are not permitted.
They also state that ‘individuals affiliated with a property may not review other properties of the same type (accommodation, restaurant or attraction) within the same city or town, or within ten miles of that property’.
But the fake Oscar’s and the self-serving scribblings of Peter Hook — who has been suspended from his job pending an internal inquiry — were exposed not by TripAdvisor’s ‘detection systems’, but by an online company that specialises in ‘reputation management’.
Kwik Chex was founded three years ago and has been locked in battle with TripAdvisor ever since, as more and more small hospitality businesses seek its help in persuading the website to look into alleged false or fraudulent reviews.
‘It’s become one big mess — with TripAdvisor being a law unto itself,’ says Chris Emmins, founder and chief executive of Kwik Chex.
He said that such ‘review sites’ are able to operate without much regulation because they are categorised as distributors of third-party content rather than publishing their own opinions.
Emmins estimates that between 10 and 20 per cent of reviews posted on TripAdvisor are fake. TripAdvisor says that figure is ‘nonsense plucked out of the air’.
‘A lot of our efforts go into checking content. Occasionally things do slip through the cracks, but it’s incredibly rare,’ says a TripAdvisor spokesman.
Fake reviews are only one issue. Just as serious is the way Trip- Advisor drags its feet over removing old reviews when a business has changed hands or undergone refurbishment.
Victims of this include Maria and James Church — the mother and stepfather of singer Charlotte Church — who took over The Dexby Town House, a B&B near the centre of Cardiff three years ago.
Before they acquired it, the business had operated under a different name and had fallen into disrepair.
One review, written in July 2006, called it ‘down at heel’ and complained that there was ‘no toilet roll and the iron and ironing board were really manky . . . not worth the money, so avoid’.
In the past seven months, the Churches have spent almost £80,000 on modernising and redecorating — and the new reviews on TripAdvisor reflected the improvements.
One, posted last week, described it as ‘an absolute fantastic stay excellent service . . . clean and comfortable’.
However, if you scroll down, the previous negative comments are all still there.
‘We’ve been battling with TripAdvisor for almost a year to have the old reviews removed, but they won’t budge,’ says Mrs Church.
‘We’ve worked so hard improving all the rooms. It makes my blood boil.
TripAdvisor won’t compromise, even though we have given them all the information we can to prove we have made the changes.’
Maria and James Church - the mother and stepfather of singer Charlotte Church - who took over The Dexby Town House, a B&B near the centre of Cardiff three years ago say old TripAdvisor reviews are hurting their business
Last year, the website was told to change the wording on its review page, which claimed that it offered ‘trusted and honest’ opinions, after the Advertising Standards Authority concluded the words were misleading and that ‘reviews could be placed on the site without any form of verification’.
Shortly before that, TripAdvisor had been forced to warn it would penalise businesses that paid for reviews after a Spanish hotel advertised for reviewers for £3 apiece. So who is behind TripAdvisor?
The firm was launched 13 years ago by an American, Steve Kaufer, who remains company boss, above a pizza shop in Newtown, Massachusetts.
Kaufer, 50, has claimed that people were not aware how ‘extensive and sophisticated’ its fraud detections systems are and says: ‘The legitimacy of the reviews is a fundamental part of our value and, ultimately, our success.’
TripAdvisor insists that all reviews pass through its ‘fraud filters’ and that IP addresses (which are used to identify individual computers) and email addresses are all checked via its ‘sophisticated’ algorithm.
Any suspicious reviews are investigated by a team of 100 ‘customer care’ employees. But critics say the website is quicker to dispute reviews that are over-positive than those that are particularly negative.
The story of Ziggy Hussain, who owns an Indian restaurant in Halifax called Ziggy’s Spice House, is instructive.
After receiving excellent reviews, more than 250 were deleted by TripAdvisor because they were based on ‘patterns of suspicious activity’ — causing the restaurant to plummet from No 1 to 122 in Halifax’s rankings.
Mr Hussain is furious and insists that all of the reviews were genuine.
He say his solicitor has been trying to contact TripAdvisor for two months, but has not received a response.
But many hoteliers welcome such feedback because they see TripAdvisor as a form of free advertising.
One big fan is Rob Morgan, chief executive of Bloc Hotels, which has one hotel in Birmingham and is about to open another at Gatwick Airport South.
He says it is ‘brilliant’. Reviews of his hotel have thus far been generally positive. However, it will be interesting to see his reaction if any of his competitors resort to damaging attacks.
Once, a restaurant or a B&B could have hoped to get away with a tough steak, a badly made bed or scuffed carpets in the corridors.
Since the advent of TripAdvisor, the smallest misdemeanours — whether accurately reported or not — are posted online for the world to see.
And these comments have the potential to destroy reputations and livelihoods.
By Mark Palmer