Don't Get Stuck in a Dump! How to Determine if Reviews by "Real Travelers" Are Fake

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With more than 25 million travel reviews and opinions, TripAdvisor's user-generated reviews are a potentially powerful trip-planning tool. At its best it's full of honest advice from average people with real life concerns, observations and photographic evidence. But at worst, TripAdvisor can be a clever hotel's PR campaign masked behind fake, "real traveler" reviews.By Carrie Nieman Culpepper

TripAdvisor has always more or less admitted the temptation is out there to falsify reviews. Its terms and conditions warn that some reviewers abuse anonymity and that they're not able to research each review for authenticity. But recently hotels with particularly suspicious reviews were tagged with a warning message, which only further admits to the problem. Given that many a real traveler also uses the site and can offer some useful insights, what's a user to do?

Try these 10 tips for detecting fake reviews:

1. Look for superlatives.

Although some reviewers are only moved to submit a review when they've had a particularly terrible or wonderful experience, those reviews are the most likely to be fake. Even some of the most glowing user reviews, usually point out one or two less-than-ideal elements. If you see "worst hotel ever" or "unparalleled service," that should be a red flag. Watch for words and phrases that sound like they've been written by the marketing team, because they may have been.

2. Look for the standouts.

Reviews that are out of step with the others are unreliable for two reasons. Reviews that are exceptionally positive, or have five stars when the others are mixed, can indicate either an out-of-the-ordinary experience for that particular traveler or a writer with some interest in the hotel, like a rival property or the general manager's friend. In either case, the exception is, as they say, most likely not the rule. So your experience is unlikely to be as good or bad.

3. Look for references to other properties.

In most cases, travelers are simply staying at one hotel in a city. They may have experience at other hotels in that location but it's not likely they would mention them in a review. A review is supposed to be just that: A review of that particular property or experience. If a writer "helpfully" mentions a nearby property as superior, it may have been written by a competitor. Very sneaky.

4. Look for reviewers with no track record.

Just as you wouldn't feel comfortable buying something on eBay from someone with no positive feedback, you should be skeptical of reviewers who have only commented about one business on TripAdvisor. Also be particularly careful of writers who've only visited the site once - on the day of the review. You can check for other hotels a writer has evaluated by clicking on the reviewer's name.

5. Look out for a lack of experience.

People who find it necessary to say they're world travelers in the first line are also suspicious, like someone who feels the need to impress others at a cocktail party. They may not know what they're talking about or they may be writing fake reviews. Click on their name to see where a reviewer has traveled, but be cautious, that can be faked, too.

6. Look out for the warning.

Obviously take special caution when you see the TripAdvisor warning message. If you see the following message, it means that the site's staff has reason to believe a property is populating its profile with fake reviews.

TripAdvisor has reasonable cause to believe that either this property or individuals associated with the property may have attempted to manipulate our popularity index by interfering with the unbiased nature of our reviews. Please take this into consideration when researching your travel plans.

7. Look for lingo.

If the posting is about an overseas hotel and the review is written in broken English and reads as if it might be written by a non-native English speaker, then you might also want to take a second look. This should be a red flag. You also should consider that those from different cultures may have different expectations for what's expected in a travel experience, so they should probably be disregarded even if the review is genuine.

8. Look for generalizations.

Fake reviews written by friends are likely to be vague with generalizations about how great a property is to visit. These reviews are most likely to leave out specifics about which room they stayed in, who they brought on the trip, what they ate in the dining room, etc. Look for details and stories about interactions with employees that would be harder to fake.

9. Look for photos.

If a property has asked family and friends to write reviews they may not be in the same location as the property and therefore would be less likely to have photos of their experience. Pay particular attention to posts with photos, especially those who've submitted photos with traveling companions in them. Those are hard to fake. It's easier to quickly populate a post with general platitudes than it is to take fake photos with open suitcases and children standing on the balcony.

10. Look for quick reviews.

A partially filled out review should also be a red flag. Hotel employees asked to review their own hotel may have been hasty and skipped over the "traveled with" or "date of stay" fields. Reviewers who don't provide this info are also likely to be people who don't use the site. Also some smaller inns give incentives to reviewers so travelers who haven't used TripAdvisor may be posting one positive review to gain a voucher or other benefit, which would also make them unreliable.

According to BudgetTravel, some other sites such as Hotels.com, Orbitz, Priceline get hotel reviews by surveying guests after they've completed their stays. "No stay, no survey," Priceline spokesperson Brian Ek told the magazine. It may be worth comparing reviews on several sites to get the real picture.
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