How much can we trust online reviews?
This doesn’t just concern travel, of course, but all sectors.
Recently, scandals of fake reviews have emerged in the news, regarding beauty products companies like Sunday Riley, which was claimed to have been forcing employees to write fake reviews for nearly two years. The US Federal Trade Commission confirmed the whistleblower’s claim.
In the UK, Amazon is under scrutiny. It has been accused by consumer association Which? of “failing to get to grips with a flood of shoddy products boosted by suspicious and fake reviews”. The Times reports on research showing that Amazon and other websites are being inundated with bogus evaluations:
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the industry watchdog, says it has found “troubling evidence” of a thriving marketplace for fake and misleading reviews, with some listings on websites such as eBay and Facebook offering fake reviews for sale.
Andras Somkuti of Docler Holding, an IT and media company, says: “As technology has evolved it is not only possible to pay reviewers, but with artificial intelligence, much can be automated, if not all.” [Emphasis added]
The money at stake is no small amount either: the estimation is that online reviews influence transactions for the value of £23 billion a year in the UK alone. A previous Which? survey found that 97% of British consumers base their choice on customer reviews.
It gets worse. Investigating the reliability of Amazon’s customer scores, “[H]ighly rated tech products sold on Amazon, including those recommended as ‘Amazon’s Choice’, have been rated as Don’t Buys in Which? labs”.
There was a time when I trusted online reviews, until I had a very bad experience when I hired a guy offering an internet-related service, who on Google had 18 reviews, all 5 stars, all very positive. What the reviews said didn’t remotely correspond to what eventually happened to me.
I started wondering if it was really possible that nobody even gave him a less-than-5-star rating, and I found it difficult to believe they were all genuine comments. I suspected that he probably gave a discount to some, amenable clients in exchange for a good review, which in fact I later found out to be a practice sometimes used.
And What about Travel Reviews?
Well, unfortunately, big websites with large numbers of visitors and users are susceptible to fake reviews, as it’s difficult to check all of them.
TripAdvisor, which is a leader in the industry, has been in the news a few times because of that.
Two months ago, a property developer who had bought a rundown pub in England to convert it into houses told The Sun newspaper that the pub was still getting reviews on TripAdvisor five years after it had closed down.
TripAdvisor replied that, of the 66 million reviews it processed in 2018, only 2.1 per cent were fake, and most of them were blocked so they never went online.
Becky Foley of TripAdvisor added: “While we are winning the fight against fake reviews on TripAdvisor, we can only protect our corner of the Internet.”
Also, another Which? investigation into TripAdvisor reported:
We analysed almost 250,000 hotel reviews on the site…
The 15 that looked most blatantly suspicious included some of the best-rated hotels in the Middle East, four of the best-rated hotels in Las Vegas, and one of the hotels in Britain’s second-biggest hotel chain, Travelodge. When we reported them to TripAdvisor, it admitted that 14 of them – 93% – had been caught with dodgy reviews in the past year.
James Kay, a UK director of TripAdvisor, said his website has gone after fake reviews “very aggressively”, and had already taken action against them independently of the Which? investigation.