Published on Monday, August 1, 2011

Travel reviews: thumbs up or down?

Travel reviews have come under withering criticism in recent days with reports of fake paid evaluations, while in the meantime new sites continue to form to counter bad reviews that can kill business and one encouraging university study has developed computer software that is better at detecting fraud than humans.

The study found that humans are “lousy” at identifying deceptive reviews. But the good news was that Cornell University researchers are far along in developing computer software that is “pretty good at it.”

“If you read online reviews before purchasing a product or service, you may not always be reading the truth. Review sites are becoming targets for ‘opinion spam’ -- phony positive reviews created by sellers to help sell their products, or negative reviews meant to downgrade competitors,” says chronicleonline of the Cornell University study.

In a test on 800 reviews of Chicago hotels, a computer was able to pick out deceptive reviews with almost 90 percent accuracy, the study found in a report submitted last month at a meeting for Computational Linguistics.

“While this is the first study of its kind, and there's a lot more to be done, I think our approach will eventually help review sites identify and eliminate these fraudulent reviews," said Myle Ott, a student who with two professors created the study.

That may come as good news after The Sunday Times recently exposed what it claimed was a market for fake reviews, with writers being offered £3 for each review.

TripAdvisor denies it and says it has rigorous processes in place to weed out fake reviews. But Times quoted an online reputation expert who highlighted that the top-ranked hotel in Rome had only opened in April and already had 40 reviews, all positive.

TripAdvisor has online 45 million reviews of some 500,000 hotels. That makes it the undisputed power house in shaping people's perceptions of what hotel they should stay in and where.

This is not the first time the popular review site came under scrutiny. Two years ago, there were reports of hotels allegedly writing fake reviews to boost their popularity ratings on the site.

TripAdvisor prides itself on ease of contribution. Anyone can write anything they want. Unlike reviews on some sites like, there is no need to have actually booked a hotel before writing about it.

Adam Raphael, editor of The Good Hotel Guide, told The Times that he believes as many as half of all reviews on TripAdvisor are written by hotel owners or their friends and family. He maintains that reviews are not checked in the way TripAdvisor protests.

“I have posted several obviously bogus reviews to test the site,” he said. He picked the worst hotels imaginable and gave them rave reviews, which were picked up.

In addition, the UK-based MailOnline reports that 30 properties around the world have been blacklisted for encouraging fraudulent positive hotel reviews, and says that there is a thriving black market in hotels willing to pay people to write these reviews.

The common assumption is that most reviews are negative. That makes sense when you consider that dissatisfied guests are the most likely to complain.

But the ReviewPro data team analyzed more than 90 million guest-written hotel reviews in 10 languages across more than 65 of the most relevant review sites and online travel agencies (OTAs). They found that the majority, or 60 percent, were positive. Only 12 percent were negative.

“ReviewPro's research proves most people go online to share positive experiences,” the site said.

The travel review craze has created a need for companies such as ReviewPro. They  index the most user-generated content for the hotel industry, and provide what they call “actionable reputation” analytics to nearly 2,000 hotels worldwide.

Other sites for helping hotels and others in the travel business improve their reputations are cropping up everywhere.

One of the recent ones is, which founder and chief Alex Small says was derived from his frustration with review sites.

He claimed that negative reviews are five times more influential to a purchasing decision than a positive one. He said Trust Mico will promote positive feedback and recommendation.

“Ask any company how many letters of complaint they get and how many letters of commendation. It’s simply an unfortunate fact that we are far more driven by anything negative rather than positive,” he said.

The free site prompts the reviewer to indicate at the start whether the review will be positive or negative.

If the review is positive, it is shared with the reviewer’s social network. If negative, it is reported to the business.

Trust Mico makes its money from offering firms’ a range of three subscription packages.

As for that Cornell study, it promises to lead to better tools for analyzing ratings. But there’s a catch.

The Cornell study found that computer analysis based on the text of known true and false reviews revealed that truthful hotel reviews were more likely to use concrete words relating to the hotel, like “bathroom,” “check-in” or “price.” Fakes included more context setting words like “vacation,” “business trip” or “my husband.”

But what happens when everyone knows what the computer program looks for? The fake review will also know how to trick it. Back to square one.

By David Wilkening

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  • Alternative to reviews?

    As the webmaster for, I must ask what is the alternative to user based reviews? People and companies might deliberately attempt to create fake reviews, but it is the job of the consumer to tell the fake from the real. It is also the job of the webmaster to build and design a system that is not easy/impossible to abuse. What are the solutions to fake reviews?

    By Ben Arlo, Wednesday, August 3, 2011

  • Good Article

    Very interesting. I always review on tripadvisor a venue I stay at. I always read the reviews before booking. If I read quite a number of reviews, which I usually do (it doesn't take much time), I get a feel for the property. I haven't been mislead once over many years. Still, I feel for owners who are unjustly treated and the software reported on should be a useful tool.

    By Buzz Singer, Wednesday, August 3, 2011

  • online reviews of hotels

    This is very interesting article especially highlighting about the study itself. I look forward to sharing this my clients/friends since some of them swear by online reviews.

    By Usha Rao, Tuesday, August 2, 2011

  • Trip Advisor biased against innkeepers

    As an innkeeper of 19 years, I have found Trip Advisor to be unreasonable with innkeepers. They allow people to post any comments they wish, but they don't always accept explanations from innkeepers. For example, a guest skipped out without paying his bill, and also stole a number of items from the room. This person then posted a very negative review of us on Trip Advisor. When I contacted the Vancouver Police Department, they told me that this person was already known to them for similar offences at other establishments. When I tried to post this information in my rebuttal, Trip Advisor refused to post it, claiming that my comments were libelous. We provide computers for guests to use. If a guest tries to post a positive review of us from one of our computers, Trip Advisor sends us a warning telling us that we are not allowed to post positive reviews about ourselves! We've also had guests who have deliberately used Trip Advisor as a way of getting an undeserved discount, by threatening to post a bad review if a discount is not forthcoming, even though there were no complaints. Objective evaluations can be useful, but only if they are fair and truthful.

    By Brenda Yablon, Tuesday, August 2, 2011

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