Does TripAdvisor hotel manipulation scandal render the site completely useless?

How do I boost my TripAdvisor rating?

That’s the most common question I get from hotel executives. And even though I try to persuade them it’s the wrong question — that there’s no proven link between a good review and bookings — they insist that their TripAdvisor reviews are the be-all and end-all.

Now, two of TripAdvisor’s most vocal critics, Beat of Hawaii with an assist from guidebook legend Arthur Frommer, have delivered a devastating blow to the Expedia-owned site.

The sites point to new warning language that accompanies close to 100 TripAdvisor hotel reviews:

TripAdvisor has reasonable cause to believe that either this property or individuals associated with the property may have attempted to manipulate our popularity index by interfering with the unbiased nature of our reviews. Please take this into consideration when researching your travel plans.

Frommer suggests TripAdvisor is basically done.

Why wouldn’t a hotel submit a flurry of positive comments penned by employees or friends? If you were a hotel owner, wouldn’t you take steps to make sure that TripAdvisor contained numerous favorable write-ups of your property? Who would fail to do this? And because of such inescapable logic, doesn’t TripAdvisor contain within itself the germs of its own undoing?

Shortly after the story hit the blogosphere and the twittersphere, TripAdvisor went on the counterattack. April Robb, who staffs TripAdvisor’s Twitter account, posted a reply on Beat of Hawaii.

TripAdvisor has zero tolerance for fraud, and we have many systems in place to address it. Our red badges are just one component and they are not, in fact, new; they’ve been standard procedure for a while now. Properties that are suspect based on specific criteria have a red badge posted next to their listing to alert travelers to our concerns. Whether or not the property advertises on TripAdvisor is irrelevant; content integrity is our utmost concern.

After I tweeted about the TripAdvisor scandal, Robb pointed me to the comment. I asked her if, now that Frommer had added his opinion, she had anything else to say. She did.

Related story:   Should I help passengers with their United Airlines "zero" fares?

We believe our nearly 25 million reviews and opinions are authentic, honest and unbiased, from real travelers, which is why we enjoy tremendous user loyalty. Also, the sheer volume of reviews we have for an individual property allows travelers to base their decisions on the opinions of many.

The integrity of TripAdvisor reviews is protected by three primary methods:

1. Every review is screened prior to posting and a team of quality assurance specialists investigate suspicious reviews

2. Proprietary automated tools help identify attempts to subvert the system

3. Our large and passionate community of more than 25 million monthly visitors help screen our content and report suspicious activity

When a review is suspected to be fraudulent, it is immediately taken down and we have measures to penalize businesses for attempts to game the system. Penalties are handled on a case by case basis.

So should you trust TripAdvisor?

Having covered the site since the very start, I think I’m uniquely qualified to answer that question. And my answer is: maybe.

Hotels and restaurants are gaming the ratings system, without a doubt. What’s significant about the recent TripAdvisor warnings is that they appear to shift their fraud-detection efforts from an unrealistic, proactive approach to a more reasonable, reactive approach. Which is to say, they do their best to catch bogus reviews as they’re posted, but in the end, they can’t stop them all. To TripAdvisor, this may seem like a subtle change, but to the likes of Beat of Hawaii, it’s a huge concession.

It’s an admission that the reviews are imperfect. TripAdvisor features more than just “real advice from real travelers” — it also has fake reviews from real hotels. And fake reviews from their competitors. And fake reviews from restaurants and their competitors.

Related story:   My WiFi left me on vacation

In other words, it’s messy.

Does this mean TripAdvisor is useless? Hardly.

I use TripAdvisor when I travel, but I do so with the knowledge that the travel industry is successfully manipulating the site. I ignore the best and worst reviews (those are typically the fake ones) and whenever I read phrases like “best hotel ever” or “incomparable service” I roll my eyes and wonder about that fabled algorithm that’s supposed to catch counterfeit reviews.

TripAdvisor, for its part, could stand to tone down some of its rhetoric. Maybe losing the “real advice from real travelers” line would be a good start.

Certainly, its slogan, “Get the truth. Then Go.” needs to be revised. Or dropped.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at

  • Fair Oak Farm

    Trip Advisor’s response of “TripAdvisor has zero tolerance for fraud” is frankly bull.  That may be the aim of management but it’s not working.
    Of more concern is a worrying increase in reports of reviewers blackmailing small hotels, B&B’s and self-catering holiday lets, threatening poor reviews or offering good reviews in exchange for a discount when the time comes to pay. Small businesses have no choice but to accept or face the consequences, which could, in an instant, unfairly ruin a small business that has taken years and somebody’s life savings to set up. To date Trip Advisor has refused to enable the reviewer to be rated, like eBay rates both buyer and seller.
    Holiday Lettings in the UK partnered with Trip Advisor last year and are also failing to do anything about it for those suffering, despite repeated warnings and being paid for advertising.
    Published results from Trip Advisor’s own research proves that guests who have enjoyed their stay are far less likely to write a review so small businesses clearly want to encourage their customers to write reviews. In fact, Trip Advisor cold call and spam small businesses to register, pushing them to encourage reviews. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging guests to write a review.  So where do you draw the line at how you encourage a customer to write a review?
    Whilst reviewers are unrated and anonymous there will continue to be blackmail and fake reviews.  Trip Advisor could do something about it, but haven’t.  “Zero tolerance”? I don’t think so.  The fact is, fake reviews and unrated reviewer anonymity means TripAdvisor reviews are currently worthless.

  • Hi!,
    This is a great compilation. Thanks for taking the time to create a
    popular article for all of us.
    “Hotel Las Vegas”

  • I have reviewed your Hotel blog carefully there are very good information. I will need your service immediately. Thanks for creating a
    sweet & important blog. Please keep it up.
    “Rostock hotel, Hotels in Rostock”

  • Hstuevenmd

    It is critically important for the public to be able to continually review products and services. That ability to voice opinions can give consumers shopping guidance. It is equally important that, wherein it is possible,  evaluations must be as objective as possible. On there has been an attempt to make restaurant evaluations objective and reproducible. Harlan Stueven MD

  • Thank you a lot for providing individuals with an exceptionally terrific opportunity to read from this site. I will be coming back soon, thanks for the great blog. I have found it really useful.
    Rostock hotel

  • Dissapointed

    We own a B&B. Once we had a wedding and due to a “bridezilla” situation the party got out of hand with many drunk people. It was late at night and past the contract time. We advised them to that effect. They mobbed on us treating us with the usual “my friend is a lawyer..” but we just applied the contract rules.

    They published a nasty review on Trip Advisor with a bunch of lies. We sent Trip Advisor (copies of the contracts and our version of the incident) several letters to the several corporate addresses, certified mail or not, they never answer. This was 2009!

    The bad review is still there despite many other good reviews!

Get smart. Sign up for the newsletter.