A TripAdvisor ranking can be make or break for a hospitality business. Some operators are buying positive reviews to boost their business, but the website is cracking down. Emma Lake reports
Earlier this year, a man were jailed for nine months in Italy after being convicted of selling fake TripAdvisor reviews to hundreds of hospitality companies.
The landmark ruling marked the first time a court had jailed someone for review fraud, and while TripAdvisor hopes other jurisdictions will be inspired to join Italy in dishing out harsh penalties, its team is focused on its own fight against those attempting to manipulate its ranking system.
Over the past three years, TripAdvisor has shut down more than 60 different websites that were offering fake reviews, including at least two originating in the UK – the inventively named positivereview.co.uk and buytripadvisorreviews.com.
The challenge for TripAdvisor is to ensure that paid-for reviews posted by such set-ups never appear on its website. It’s a big task – the site hosts more than 600 million reviews – but director of corporate communications James Kay says less than 2% of reviews that do make it to the site are ever flagged (for any reason) as suspicious.
Kay suggests that the lack of paid reviews (see below for TripAdvisor’s review definitions) being flagged may reflect the fact that there is no incentive for fraudsters to follow through on sales. He explains: “There are loads of websites who will claim they’re selling reviews but actually when it comes down to it, they’re not even attempting to write them.
“If you think about it, they have no incentive to: it’s illegal, and it’s illegal to buy a review in the UK, so if you’re an owner and you pay money to a website for a package of reviews and they don’t deliver, you have absolutely no recourse. They’re not going to give you a refund, and it’s not like they’re relying on repeat custom. They have absolutely no incentive to deliver on the promise.”
Those that do follow up sales with action will have to get around TripAdvisor’s software to see their posts go live. The software analyses factors such as location, time, device and IP address for warning signs. Before making it on to the site, every review flagged is looked at by TripAdvisor’s fraud busters, who are based around the world providing 24-hour cover.
The analysis done by the company is based on its experience of what the posting activity for genuine reviews of a single property will typically look like, and Kay says that deviations from this are fairly easy to notice.
He explains: “The reason we think our technology is so effective is because of the patterns, even at a small scale, even just a few reviews. Very few fake reviewers are trying to get one review up in isolation. If their motive is to move a business’s rating, then a single review isn’t going to do that. So they’re posting multiple reviews, and that’s where those connections become more and more obvious and how our investigators can unravel things.”
For this reason, the more prolific a fraudster is, the more likely they are to be noticed. Once TripAdvisor has identified paid reviews related to one property, it can quickly find more.
“I would compare it to pouring water on a spider web,” Kay explains. “You suddenly see all the elements to it. It absolutely is the case that once you establish one property is using paid reviews and you are confident the reviews coming in for it are not legitimate, you can be confident in others. That’s an incredibly powerful tool for us; once we have that, the whole thing can come down very quickly.”
It can be a game of cat and mouse, with some fraudsters employing sophisticated measures to try and negotiate a way through TripAdvisor’s systems. Kay says: “Fraudsters are always trying to find new ways to get around the system, which we are obviously very hot on.
“Something we saw in Russia [around the 2018 World Cup] was review exchange. Groups where people will say, ‘I’ll write a positive review for your business if you write one for mine’. It’s not actually the most sophisticated fraud; it’s something our data can pick up pretty quickly. We can infiltrate these groups, posing as a business owner, and offer to do the same thing.”
The investigation into activity around the World Cup saw more than 1,300 reviewer accounts identified as attempting to submit reviews in a suspicious manner. These reviews were directed at 250 different restaurants across the tournament’s 11 host cities.
As well as monitoring patterns, the company carries out proactive investigations by searching for companies advertising their services.
Kay says: “To get custom, they have to advertise and so that’s a big way we’re able to catch them. If they’re advertising to owners then they’re visible, and what our investigators will do is pose as business owners and enquire about purchasing a package of reviews. We’re gathering information.”
Collecting this information may mean that TripAdvisor waits a while before sending a cease and desist letter – an action that will normally result in such websites being taken down. Reviews from the site will still be blocked, but Kay explains the company may not want to reveal its hand too early so it has the opportunity to gather information that can help it monitor the fraudster’s activity.
Kay says: “The danger is if we immediately send a cease and desist letter, all we do is alert them to the fact we’re on to them, and they shut down the site, set up one in a different name, and we’ve got to start from scratch.
“If we establish dialogue when they don’t even know they’re in conversation with us and glean information about the person behind the website, then when it does come to showing our hand, if they shut it down and set up a new one we can probably identify it fairly quickly.”
A cloud of suspicion
According to Kay, there are huge variations in the presentation, sophistication and pricing of the paid review companies.
He explains: “Some are very blatant and not very sophisticated in the way they market themselves. Sometimes they will post listings on Fiverr and eBay, and we’ve worked with these sites to have them taken down.
“The first stage of any investigation is to work out what we’re dealing with: is it one that’s all smoke and mirrors, or is it one that is trying to post reviews? The more sophisticated fraudsters who have created full websites often try to claim that they’re affiliated to TripAdvisor or have an insider who used to work here. That is always a lie; we would never work with anyone in that way.”
Dialogue is also what TripAdvisor wants to establish with any businesses that have tried to purchase positive reviews.
“There are penalties if TripAdvisor finds you are using a paid review service,” he explains. “How strict that penalty is will depend on a whole number of factors. It’s done on a case-by-case basis and the businesses that co-operate with us don’t face penalties as harsh as those that don’t.”
TripAdvisor’s harshest punishment is a red badge that will sit on a business’s page, advising all those that visit it that the reviews cannot be trusted. Kay advises that this is something that is “rarely” required.
TripAdvisor hopes more review fraudsters will end up in court as it works to provide a level playing field that businesses and consumers can trust.
“Italy was a landmark case,” Kay says. “We were able to take it all the way to the court because of the police’s willingness to take it up. They were investigating while we were investigating in tandem, and when we became aware of that we were able to join the case as a civil claimant and provide the evidence we had gathered. It amounted to thousands of reviews – a lot of which we had stopped from making it on to the site. It was fantastic to see someone put in jail for it because it is fraud, it is illegal, and we hope that it is a landmark case and that others will follow suit.”
TripAdvisor’s review definitions
A review submitted by someone who is either biased or did not have a personal experience with the business that they are reviewing
A review submitted by someone who did have a personal experience with the business, but whose account of that experience is disputed by the business
A review that a business has attempted to purchase
A review given on the promise of a reward or preferential treatment, such as discount
An attempt to threaten a business with a bad review in exchange for a discount/refund or preferential treatment
Employee or family review
A reviews posted by anyone who is affiliated with the business
A review posted by someone associated with a business in the surrounding area