Friday, February 10, 2006

Get Real: Hotel Review Sites on the Web

Yes, it's Real

Website guru and internet travel writer Durant Imboden recently pointed out an article that investigates the reality behind all those hotel review websites on the internet, such as the one I sometimes look at out of sheer boredom -- Fodor's Asia Chat (or whatever they call it). The Fodor's site is almost exclusively geared to very upscale travelers, who love to praise or damn their favorite hotels in Bangkok, and I find the site quite intelligent and useful for a travel writer trying to keep up with hotel developments in that part of the world.

Obviously, there are some shills on the site that hope to promote their favorite hotels in Bangkok or Bali, and you rarely get seriously critical comments about the properties, but it's not always a love fest. But you probably need to take the effulsive praise with the grain of salt, especially with the larger and more mainstream websites that invite commentary from the unwashed masses.

Here's what Durant has to say about the controversy:

The article describes how some hotels and resorts have "reputation management" departments that submit positive reviews under pseudonyms to user-review sites like and Others offer incentives to guests who post positive reviews at such sites. The bigger review sites are having to respond with more editorial control and penalties for hotels that abuse the system.

In another publication, PC MAGAZINE, columnist Bill Machrone writes about "turking," which involves the payment of tiny amounts (e.g., a penny per review) to users who name the three best pizza parlors in Philadelphia, the three best sushi bars in Silicon Valley, etc. Machrone talks about the dangers that turking could encourage a "vast, unregulated workforce, well under the minimum-wage radar" and speculates that "people clever for their own good" might pack turking-based sites with "multiple reviews, fake identities, and computer-reworded opinions." See:,1895,1917750,00.asp

It seems that publishers who rely on free or almost-free contributions are beginning to discover that they get what they pay for. :-)

- Durant

Durant Imboden
Europe for Visitors

And here's a short bit from the New York Times article:

Business travelers like Michelle Madhok used to consider online hotel reviews a reliable reference.

Travelers once took reviews on Web sites at face value, but the proliferation of voices and the manipulation by hoteliers have made skeptics of the site operators and their readers.

Officials at say they closely monitor reviews to eliminate any spurious recommendations for certain hotels.
Whenever she traveled to an unfamiliar city, Ms. Madhok said, she clicked on sites like or, where she found thousands of ratings written by real guests.

Or so she thought.

Ms. Madhok, the president of the Internet shopping site, said she was now becoming increasingly skeptical of what she saw online. "I read reviews of hotels that I've stayed at," she said. "And they're just wrong. I wonder if they've really stayed at the hotel."

On a recent visit to a spa in New York, she says, her doubts turned to disbelief: the resort was discreetly offering a free reflexology treatment to customers who posted a positive review of the establishment on "It was very troubling," she said.

As Web sites that publish guest hotel reviews become more influential, some hotels — from bed-and-breakfasts to large resorts — are going to greater lengths to ensure that their properties are rated highly. Their efforts, analysts say, range from encouraging guests to write flattering reviews to, in extreme cases, submitting bogus recommendations to Web sites.

The hotels justify their actions, the analysts say, as a counterweight to out-of-context rants by disgruntled guests; both sides are exploiting a new technology that lacks the safeguards of the traditional travel guidebooks, which are written by professional writers and edited for accuracy.

It was not always so. In the early days of hotel review sites on the Web, the Internet was a less diverse place, and the postings generally came from like-minded travelers, the experts say. But as more and more people are using the Internet to make travel decisions, there are more incentives, and opportunities, to manipulate reviews.

The major hotel chains deny that they try to influence online reviews in any way. But publishers at the most popular review Web sites say they have been inundated by fraudulent posts and have had to develop numerous measures to protect travelers.

Analysts and Web site operators say they fear that the effort is a losing battle. "Most sites can't catch a fake review," said Stanley E. Roberts, the chief executive of, a lodging and dining review site.

Even so, Mr. Roberts says he reads every review before it is posted — a laborious process that relies on instinct and experience. Still, he said, "I'm never sure if a fake is going to make it through."

The relentless efforts by hotels to influence their online ratings have made some review sites suspicious, if not paranoid. "We assume that every review we get is bogus, and it is bogus until proven otherwise," said Kenneth J. Marshall, who publishes, a small hotel review site "We have to look for a reason to publish it." Indeed, more than half the reviews he receives do not make the cut, he said. As a result, only about 1,200 hotels are reviewed on his site., another ratings site, takes a different approach to ferreting out fraudulent write-ups. The guest commentaries it publishes are put into context, with detailed information about each reviewer, "so you can see exactly who is writing the review and if that person has similar travel needs to yourself," said Jim Donnelly, the site's vice president for marketing.

IgoUgo counts about 670 active business travelers in its membership. Their postings are also monitored by editors as an extra precaution.

TripAdvisor, which is owned by Expedia, is perhaps the best known of the hotel ratings sites and proclaims it is the largest, with more than three million reader reviews. It is so concerned with review fraud that it hired Reed Meyer to create a fraud detection algorithm to sniff out suspect reviews. Mr. Meyer would not disclose how the program worked because he did not want to tip off hotels on how to circumvent it. Nor will he say how many reviews have been weeded out by the application.

Christine Petersen, TripAdvisor's senior vice president for marketing, said, "Hotels periodically try to get around the system." In one memorable case, an Italian hotelier offered the site a bottle of Limoncello di Capri liqueur if the site would remove a poor review of his property. The site declined.

"If a hotel is caught trying to influence the process, they're put on a watch list," she said. "That influences their ranking, and is a huge black mark against them."

New York Times Link

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