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.

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?

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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.

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 chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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