A landmark ruling over fake TripAdvisor reviews in Italy, known as paid review fraud, has resulted in the world’s first prosecution, and the likelihood is this will happen in Scotland. What do hoteliers need to know about this, and what can they do to look out for and report this type of activity in the meantime? Jason Caddy reports.
Paid review fraud is when companies or individuals ‘sell’ fake reviews to businesses to boost said businesses rating on a review-based site, whether that’s TripAdvisor, Google Reviews or Yelp, thereby giving it an unfair advantage over its competitors.
A recent investigation by The Times newspaper revealed that a whopping third of reviews on TripAdvisor are fake as a result of hotels and restaurants ‘buying’ fake reviews. The investigation has found that websites are offering glowing reviews for £38. Others allowed owners to bulk buy reviews for less money, with one offering 10 positive reviews for £69.
Naturally this falls foul of the law, but a landmark ruling in Italy earlier this year, when a fake Trip Advisor reviewer, PromoSalento, was prosecuted and is now serving a nine-month sentence, plus an 8,000 Euro fine for posting fake reviews and for selling fake reviews to hospitality businesses, is the first time an individual has received a criminal conviction.
TripAdvisor has supported the prosecution by sharing evidence from its in-house fraud investigations department. Brad Young, VP, Associate General Counsel, TripAdvisor, said, “We invest a lot in fraud prevention and we’re successful at tackling it – since 2015, we’ve put a stop to the activity of more than 60 different paid review companies worldwide. However, we can only do so much alone, which is why we’re eager to collaborate with regulators and law enforcement authorities to support their prosecutions.”
The World Committee on Tourism Ethics, UNWTO, publishes guidelines on such activity. Said Chairman Pascal Lamy, “Fake reviews clearly contravene the World Committee on Tourism Ethics guidelines, which we published last year to guide the responsible use of ratings and reviews on digital platforms. The recommendations were developed in collaboration with TripAdvisor, Minube and Yelp and we know that industry collaboration has an important role to play in tackling review fraud.”
So what can you do if you suspect a rival business is guilty of posting fake reviews?
It’s mainly down to the monitoring systems these sites have in place, yet they can be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of reviews, as well as differentiating between which ones are real and which ones are fake. Some sites have warnings if a user has used fake reviews in the past, and repeat offenders face removal from the site altogether of course.
The Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 protects customers from those whose intent is to mislead by what they post online, and this may be the first step towards similar legal action being taken against offenders in the UK.
Which.com devotes an entire section on its website that walks customers through some of the telltale signs of a fake review, which is worth a read because it may help you spot this type of activity if, for example, you suspect someone of using such reviews. Among what it details are two online tools that you can use to spot fake reviews. One is Fakespot.com, the other ReviewMeta.com, and both allow you to copy and paste a review URL into the site.
Meanwhile, researchers from the University of Portsmouth have devised a new method to rank hotels more accurately. They argue that way individual ratings are currently aggregated into the overall rating is very simplistic, with some platforms just offering an arithmetic average of individual ratings. The problem, as they see it, is that this provides an equal weighting to each individual criteria and doesn’t differentiate between important and non-important hotel characteristics. Also, a hotel could compensate a low score in one aspect with a high score in another. This new model relaxes some of the assumptions made by this average approach and reflects a customer’s decision process more accurately by providing different weighting to attributes that are more important to customers.
This may be the future for online review sites, but for the moment TripAdvisor is king, and you are of course able to report any reviews that you suspect are fake by reporting them to the site in question.