Don’t let fake travel reviews spoil your Christmas getaway

CHOICE is warning consumers to be on the lookout for fake hotel reviews this holiday season following a report that online user-generated content is the most-trusted source for reviews other than personal recommendations from friends.

The warning comes following reports in May this year that the general manager of communications for Accor hotels in the Asia-Pacific region was caught posting more than 100 positive reviews on TripAdvisor for Accor hotels around the world.

“The boom in hotel review sites has given rise to the practice of ‘astroturfing’ or the writing of fake reviews by companies to promote their own accommodation,” says CHOICE Head of Media Tom Godfrey.

In the US, the New York Attorney General recently levied hefty fines on 19 companies that wrote fake online reviews and created fake online profiles for businesses. Both the ACCC and NSW Fair Trading are looking in to similar practices here.

“Second to friends, people place their trust in reviews before editorial content, ads, marketing, and government sponsored tourism websites. Yet US-based Trip Advisor, the world’s biggest online travel review service, has no plans to improve its verification processes.”

Third party verification has begun to crop up in the face of questions asked about the authenticity of user-generated reviews. UK based Feefo is changing the game in the UK through its partnership with Expedia Europe. Feefo Head of Marketing Paul Cranston told CHOICE it’s a matter of ensuring the customer is actually a reviewer with a transaction identification reference or evidence there has been a commercial relationship.

When CHOICE contacted Expedia Australia to find out whether it would be adopting a verification process to ensure trustworthiness, they were grilled by a third-party PR agency on behalf of Expedia, and they didn’t get any answers to our questions.

CHOICE also contacted, Travelocity and Orbitz to ask whether they had any processes in place to verify the authenticity of reviews. Despite repeated follow up attempts only got back to us with public relations rep Taylor Cole saying ‘Once the stay is completed, we send the guest a link so they can write a review. No incentive is offered for this information.’

In February 2012 UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) forced Trip Advisor to drop claims such as ‘reviews you can trust’ and ‘trusted advice from real travelers’ from its website. Unfortunately for Aussie travelers the regulatory action only applied to Trip Advisor’s UK site.

Since the 2012 ruling Trip Advisor has repeatedly defended the reliability of its site. “Trip Advisor has used sophisticated filters and behavioral modeling. Our large and passionate community of 260 million monthly visitors let us know if they see something amiss” says Trip Advisor spokesperson Jean Ow-Yeong.

However in July this year the company was flagrantly caught out when a UK restaurant that had received rave reviews and increasingly high rankings over a couple of months turned out not to exist.

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