Is one big joke?

TripAdvisor, the popular hotel review site, which in theory is a gold mine for shared information, boasts some 25 million views a month, and although it isn't responsible for writing positive reviews to promote any one property, its messy, user-generated system is increasingly under fire for fomenting propaganda.

The objections are piling on so quickly that the Web site has placed disclaimers on at least 92 hotel pages (click here to see one). "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."

To the site's watchdogs, which include Arthur Frommer and, it was like an admission of guilt. TripAdvisor, they allege, has fallen victim to desperately self-promoting hotels that have successfully learned to pad the reviews, trashing the purpose of the whole site. took the accusations further by reporting that Visit Scotland, the official tourism bureau of Scotland, even uses tax money to teach hoteliers how to use TripAdvisor to their advantage, i.e., how to slip their propaganda past the censors.

If that's not a conflict enough for you, it gets thornier. Visit Scotland added TripAdvisor reviews to its official Web site because it would result in "increased bookings for participating accommodation." So, in essence, first the tax-supported body taught hotel owners to use the system and then it posted the results on a government Web site in order to stimulate income. (A Visit Scotland rep told me that although reviews are linked through its official website, it only teaches hotel staff how to respond to criticism, not how to game the system.)

To hear TripAdvisor's founder Steve Kaufer tell it, abuse like that is a minor concern. He told travel journalist Christopher Elliott that the site catches the "vast majority" of manipulated reviews. Kaufer also furnished the following three-point defense:

"1. Every review is screened prior to posting and a team of quality assurance specialists investigate suspicious reviews.

2. Proprietary automated tools help identify attempts to subvert the system.

3. Our large and passionate community of more than 25 million monthly visitors help screen our content and report suspicious activity When a review is suspected to be fraudulent, it is immediately taken down and we have measures to penalize businesses for attempts to game the system. Penalties are handled on a case by case basis."

Sounds good, but it's full of holes. First, how exactly will the review screeners know when a review is suspicious? One of the primary problems with TripAdvisor is that users regularly accuse other uses of stuffing the ballot box with either raves or pans. But if you genuinely love a hotel and write a rave, what is there to distinguish your review from one written by someone who was manipulated to do so?

There are also reports of hotels pressuring guests to post reviews on TripAdvisor after their stays. Strictly speaking, this is perfectly legal and probably undetectable by TripAdvisor.

Budget's Sean O'Neill mused, "I've long wondered [why] TripAdvisor didn't duplicate Amazon's 'Real Name' feature, which offers third-party verification that a reviewer is the person he or she claims to be." That would be a better solution than what TripAdvisor is putting forward, which is too vulnerable to human error. Or it could do what does, and only allow reviews from people it knows have actually stayed at the property in question.

Second, "proprietary automated tools." What's that? Until we know what they are, this isn't much of a defense. Right now, it sounds like a spam blocker, and TripAdvisor's tattered reputation doesn't involve automated spam. It involves, like I said, a human-directed stuffing of the ballot box.

Third, it claims that users flag suspicious activity. That, too, can be manipulated. One hotel manager could wage war against another this way. A hotel manager could also claim her own negative review is offensive just to get it off the books for a little while. Also, an honest (but poorly written) review could also be mistakenly removed this way.

The system doesn't work because of human manipulation, but TripAdvisor wants to remedy that with more human manipulation.

But when it comes to shared information systems, the "flag-and-investigate" method of patrolling doesn't work on websites of volume, partly because of staffing concerns and partly because it can lead to some messy manipulations. That's what probably happened when recently put countless gay and lesbian titles in an adults-only ghetto, invisible to searches, likely because some anonymous people didn't think the subject matter lined up with their own personal beliefs.

If I were to advise TripAdvisor, I would tell it to find a more fail-safe way to clean up its act. After all, it's owned by Expedia, which stands to make a buck if you book a room at one of the well-reviewed hotels on its site. So far, public grumbling about TripAdvisor has not extended to judgment about the financial connection between positive reviews and income for the site's parent.

TripAdvisor isn't the only site to grapple with manipulation by corporations orchestrating stealth operations. A representative for Belkin electronics was nabbed for paying people to post five-star reviews on Amazon. Royal Caribbean was caught wining and dining customers who then went forth and flooded cruise review sites with praise for the line. Yelp has been outed for pressuring establishments to pay up in exchange for burying bad reviews.

Last summer, I gave my advice about how to interpret user-review sites such as TripAdvisor, and the Web site's defense has done nothing to change my prescription, so here it is again. My advice boils down to learning how to read between the lines:

  • Read as many reviews for a given place as you can and ignore the most glowing and most angry postings, which could be either from the owners or their rivals.
  • If an entry reads like it was written by a PR person (vaguely ecstatic, wording that sounds like a brochure, details no normal guest would notice), it just might have been. Sometimes, fake reviews will toss a few minor complaints in to lend credence. Likewise, the more professional a photo looks, the less trustworthy it becomes.
  • Post regular reviews of your own on the sites you like. The more people post, the more the sites' phony write-ups will be diluted, and the more useful the databases become.
  • For some destinations with legions of fans, like Walt Disney World, read carefully to determine whether the reviewer is truly appraising or unduly starry-eyed.
  • If a hotel's management consistently responds to negative reviews, take it as a promising sign that testifies to their attention to service.
  • Always consider the source and account for cultural differences. For example, American tourists frequently complain bitterly about the small hotel rooms in Europe. That doesn't mean the hotel's bad.
  • Don't reach conclusions -- either positive or negative -- about places with only a few reviews.
  • If possible, temper your findings with write-ups from a newspaper or guide book, but remember that most publications only publish recommendations and they won't even bother printing a hotel listing if the review would be awful.

Update, July 2010: TripAdvisor is still posting disclaimers, which it calls "warning notices," on some of its reviews. The site tells WalletPop that "only a fraction of a percent of the hotels on the site have notices."

The current wording of the warning reads: "TripAdvisor has reasonable cause to believe that individuals or entities associated with or having an interest in this property may have interfered with traveler reviews and/or the popularity index for this property. We make our best efforts to identify suspicious content and are always working to improve the processes we use to assess traveler reviews."

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