In a previous post I discussed some of the good and bad aspects of TripAdvisor reviews, including possibly phony reviews that overexaggerate the positives or negatives of hotels, restaurants, and various travel activities, often to the point of ridiculousness.
Now New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is cracking down on some businesses that have been giving themselves five-star reviews on sites like Yelp, Google, CitySearch and Yahoo.
Nineteen companies — including a charter bus company as well as non-travel-related businesses — have been ordered to stop writing or contracting for phony reviews of themselves and to pay a total of $350,000 in fines.
Schneiderman estimates that by next year one seventh of all the reviews on social media sites will be fakes.
So-called “reputation enhancement” companies are at the heart of the problem, hiring cheap foreign labor to crank out reviews that get their clients five-star — but fraudulent — notices on the online sites. Some real customers have been bribed to produce unreal reviews as well.
The result has been labeled “astroturfing,” likening the reviews to the fake grass carpets in sports stadiums.
And make no mistake: “customer” reviews can mean big business to travel-related or other companies.
A recent Neilsen research survey showed that online reviews were trusted more than any other source except for word of mouth from friends and relatives — even though consumers know nothing about the reviewers including their names or motives. Some 70 percent of those surveyed worldwide said they trusted online reviews.
A restaurant’s review score going up by one star on a site like Yelp can boost business by up to nine percent, Schneiderman says. Other research shows that an extra star can warrant a hotel raising its room rates by 11 percent.
Yet many reviews, Schneiderman has found, are written by people who have never used the product or even visited New York or anywhere in the U.S.
I like to think that baby boomer travelers are more skeptical than some younger travelers when it comes to what you read online, but that’s just a hunch based on the fact that we’ve been around longer and didn’t grow up with the Internet.
And keep in mind, this hurts not just consumers but travel businesses that don’t engage in these shenanigans. If you play fair, you might lose business to the cheaters — much like pro athletes who don’t bulk up on steroids.
The best defense for consumers is to start using a little more common sense — and employing a bit more skepticism — when reading online reviews. I always look for specifics — are certain dishes mentioned in restaurant reviews? What specifically about the hotel was dirty — or wonderful? That helps weed out the factory-like reviews spewing out from foreign content mills. And of course anything that reads totally over the top should be questioned at the very least.
Meanwhile, I’m glad Schneiderman is calling attention to the problem, and I hope other states start paying attention to him.
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