London - By sharing all your experiences, you’re helping other travellers make better choices and plan their dream trips. That’s what you are told before posting a review of a hotel or restaurant on the website TripAdvisor.
But better choices and dream trips don’t always come into it.
You might just as easily be unleashing your venom on a rival establishment. Or talking up your own enterprise. Or simply settling a few scores.
What’s certain is that even those of us who are suspicious of TripAdvisor, and know deep down that we’re not getting the full story, find it hard to resist reading comments from happy or not-so-happy anonymous customers before booking a holiday, hotel room or even a restaurant table. And there’s never a shortage of opinions on offer.
TripAdvisor receives 70 of them every minute, with more than 100 million reviews on the site at any one time. It has around 230 million online visitors each month and lists nearly three million hotels, restaurants and other attractions, along with eight million accompanying photographs.
This year, TripAdvisor - which bills itself as the world’s biggest travel site and employs 1 800 staff - is on course to achieve revenues in excess of $1-billion.
The trouble is that there is no way of proving how many of its reviews are genuine and how many are the work of fraudsters with axes to grind or hoteliers blowing their own trumpets.
It’s a win-win for TripAdvisor, but could it be a lose-lose for the rest of us? After all, it’s further evidence of an encroaching X Factor culture where coming top of a popularity contest is mistaken for real talent.
TripAdvisor’s latest embarrassment involved a “simply divine” and “mind-blowing” restaurant in Brixham, Devon, called Oscar’s, where scuba divers were on hand to catch any particular fish that customers wanted served up on their plates.
This “irresistible” floating restaurant was built into the hull of an old fishing boat off New Quay Lane, but moved with the tide.
The food was so delicious (‘impossible to get seafood any fresher than this... something bordering on sorcery,’ said a TripAdvisor review) that, despite sounding slightly implausible, customers started turning up in the hope of getting a table, even after being warned by email that it was booked out months in advance.
They went hungry - because Oscar’s did not exist. There were only a few bins and, latterly, some disgruntled foodies in New Quay Lane, but no restaurant.
A hoaxer had invented Oscar’s and posted the reviews himself to expose the TripAdvisor’s failings. The culprit, a businessman hiding behind the online pseudonym Oscar Parrot, said he wanted to see how long it took TripAdvisor to work out his submission was a fake.
“I was also aware that various establishments had contacted TripAdvisor about obvious fake reviews, but the response always seemed to be: ‘Tough luck!’” he told me.
His elaborate hoax follows the story of a hotel executive called Peter Hook, from Sydney, Australia, who was exposed in May of writing glowing reviews for his own hotels while castigating rivals.
Using the pseudonym “Tavore”, the communications manager of Accor Hotels in Asia wrote 106 reviews about hotels in 43 cities.
Once, after arriving in Britain, he raved about the Novotel Manchester Centre (‘the staff were fantastic and friendly’).
He also liked the Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa on Denarau Island, where he noted that “families from the adjacent Hilton and Sheraton hotels were sneaking in to use the Sofitel pool”.
Needless to say, the Novotel Manchester and Sofitel Fiji are part of the Accor Hotels group, while Hilton and Sheraton are competitors.
TripAdvisor’s rules make clear that reviews “written by ownership or management, including past employees or anyone associated with/related to employees” of the hotel are not permitted.
They also state that “individuals affiliated with a property may not review other properties of the same type (accommodation, restaurant or attraction) within the same city or town, or within ten miles of that property.”
But the fake Oscar’s and the self-serving scribblings of Peter Hook - who has been suspended from his job pending an internal inquiry - were exposed not by TripAdvisor’s ‘detection systems’, but by an online company that specialises in “reputation management”. - Daily Mail