From prison sentences to lost business, the fake review game may be tempting, but it can be a long-term brand killer.
With over 456 million visitors a month—that’s 1 in every 16 people on earth—TripAdvisor has become the default online travel guide and guestbook where contributors document the highs and lows of their travel experience down to the details of a hotel’s bathroom, sheet quality, and amenities. TripAdvisor has also become a watering hole for people to trade stories, memories, tips, and advice about the hotels and lodgings they stayed in, the restaurants they dined, and the tours they took long after they’ve made the journey back home. And they’re sharing to the tune of 660 million reviews to date.
“Reviews you can trust” promised one of TripAdvisor’s early taglines, and although their marketing has shifted slightly, a consumer’s desire for honest, unbiased reviews hasn’t. According to data from the site, 79% of global users will read 6-12 reviews before selecting a hotel and 83% will “usually” or “always” reference TripAdvisor reviews prior to booking.
People rely on TripAdvisor as a central part of their holiday planning, and that dependence has spurred the explosive growth of the “reputation economy,” an entire industry focused on fixing a hotel’s brand reputation online or sabotaging its competitors—picture the Olivia Pope of hospitality complete with fake reviews that are bartered, bought, and sold online.
Make no mistake—TripAdvisor is taking the business of fake reviews seriously because the core of its business (and profitability) is dependent on consumer trust. If that trust is questioned, so is the viability of the site—and TripAdvisor is pulling no punches when it comes to its own reputation management. In a landmark ruling in September, an Italian court delivered a nine-month prison sentence and $9,300 fine to a man who wrote and sold over 1,000 fake hotel and restaurant reviews, which would have bumped establishment ratings and online profiles.
However, one of the most dangerous aspects of fake reviews is that they cast doubt on the real ones—the hard work a hotel has done to satisfy its guests and earn those high stars can now be cause for suspicion. Fake reviews also force TripAdvisor to become an arbiter of honesty, a precarious position where they’re forced to police the content on its platform, which bears the risk of genuine reviews being removed in the process.
While reputation management companies have gotten sophisticated, there are six telltale signs of a suspicious review:
1. Hotel Jargon Overload: “My hotel was a spacious, inspiring retreat. My suite had captivating views of the beach and waterfront.” Would a real person write that? Perhaps if they were penning posts for a J. Peterman catalogue, but guests don’t serve as marketing megaphones for a hotel. They tend to avoid the jargon used on property websites and brochures.
2. The Informative vs. The Imaginative: Guests write informative reviews and use spatial details (i.e. bathroom, details on size in relation to the number of guests and relative comfort, etc.). They focus on the description and details (nouns/adjectives) that made or broke their stay. They avoid elaborate storytelling (verbs/adverbs). Fake reviews have a general lack of nuance and detail and tend to highlight the story behind a vacation instead of the specifics of their stay. Bottom line—the majority of people don’t use TripAdvisor to hone their novel-writing skills.
3. The Hype/Hate Machine: Be weary of too much hype or hate. Reviews that use effusive adverbs like “really” or “very” or employ multiple exclamation points can give you pause. Of course, people can fall in love with a property, but their reviews aren’t of the over-the-top fan letter variety. On the flipside, overtly mean vs. critical reviews can signal when a hotel is taking aim at its competitors. Criticism of a particular aspect of a stay is normal and expected—general ire at a property for its mere existence isn’t.
4. The Love Bomb: Ever notice a sudden flurry of reviews after a slew of consistently negative ones (i.e. different people remark on the same aspects of a hotel)? This love bomb can serve as a fake positive cover and counterpoint to the legitimate flaws of a property.
5. The Phantom Reviewer: If you can’t find a background of the reviewer or you notice a polarizing thread of reviews—either extremely positive or negative—this could imply an account set up to create hype for its clients and hate for its competitors. Reviewers tend to add details to their profile—especially if they rely on TripAdvisor as an informative and community-based haven for honest takes.
6. Excessive Use of “I” and “We”: This may seem counter-intuitive, but some management companies have jumped on the humanizing train where they believe that creating a persona around a review signals its validity. Remember, travelers focus on the informative details of their trip—they review the place instead of regaling their memoirs. While they may use “I” or “we,” use tends to be minimal because they’re on the platform to give details about their trip, not share personal narratives.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule and honest, elaborate, on the border of the fantastical, storytellers exist. However, the point is to not home in on one review in particular, but to look for overall trends. People often and consistently criticize a hotel’s flaws and fawn over its stellar qualities. Consistency is the key.
While engaging in the fake review game may seem all-too-tempting, it can be a brand killer. Once you lose a prospective guest’s trust, it’s nearly impossible (or insanely expensive) to regain. And since TripAdvisor takes its own brand reputation management seriously, you can face legal consequences as well—not to mention the PR nightmare.
Keeping tabs on TripAdvisor reviews for your hotel and competitors is an essential part of your business. With Hotel Heartbeat, you can track reviews in real-time, get ahead of property mishaps, take advantage of competitor blindspots, and connect with guests and platform influencers—all in a single dashboard, on any device. See how Hotel Heartbeat works.