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How Accurate Are Online Travel Reviews?

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It’s easy to find hotel reviews online, but honest, unbiased honest customer reviews are harder to spot. Tech columnist  Phil Baker reports on new findings and reviews the latest technology to see if there’s a better way.

How reliable are those ratings on user-generated review sites? Apparently a significant number are not very accurate, based on recent findings about TripAdvisor’s UK site.  A 4-month investigation conducted by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the UK’s independent regulator of advertising, has found a rash of fake comments and reviews posted by hotel owners and others trying to boost their business and denigrate their competition.

The watchdog agency, whose role is to ensure that ads are legal, decent, honest and truthful, discovered that reviews could be posted by almost anyone without any form of verification. It ruled that TripAdvisor cannot claim that its reviews are from actual travelers or that they are totally honest, and trusted. The investigation resulted from complaints filed by hotel owners and Kwikchex, a UK company that manages online reputations.

ASA pointed out wording on TripAdvisor’s website that reads “reviews you can trust” and “honest” opinions from “real travelers,” was misleading, since TripAdvisor was unable to prove that the reviews were genuine. TripAdvisor has removed the wording from its UK website.

Sites such as TripAdvisor have become a powerful source of useful information for anyone booking travel plans to unfamiliar areas, and there will always be those that try to game the system.

ASA may be right in principle, but it’s impossible to weed out all of the fraudulent reviews. A spokesman for TripAdvisor told me it uses proprietary tools to check the reviews, relies on its community of more than 50 million visitors to report suspicious content, and penalizes businesses for attempts to game the system.

But, as with most review sites, it pays to be a little skeptical and not believe everything you read. Look for an overall consensus and ignore the outliers. My wife and I use TripAdvisor regularly and find it to be very helpful. But we focus on those properties where there are dozens or hundreds of reviews, and are skeptical of those with just five or 10. And we often Google the name of the property with the word “complaints” appended.