/ Travel & Leisure

Have you ever spotted a fake hotel review?

Today we’ve revealed how some of the highest-ranked hotels on TripAdvisor reached the top by using fake reviews. Have you ever been caught out?

Long before becoming a travel journalist I used to write live music reviews, among other things, for the now defunct Melody Maker magazine.

It was a job in which, on a regular basis, angry fans would write in demanding to know whether you were ‘even at the same gig?!?’

The thing is, reviews are always subjective. One person might think that Ed Sheeran is Suffolk’s answer to Prince. Another might think that he sounds like Simply Red being chased downstairs by a swarm of wasps.

When it comes to travel, reviews can often seem to be equally subjective.

Have you ever stayed at a hotel that’s received glowing write-ups online, but which has turned out to be a Fawlty Towers or, worse, a Britannia?

Our latest investigation suggests that many of these glowing reviews are not just a simple difference of opinion.

Alarm bells

We found evidence that, on TripAdvisor, some of the highest ranked hotels in the world may have used underhand tactics to achieve their position.

They abused the fact that the site doesn’t check that reviewers have actually stayed in the places they review.

One hotel we looked at, the official ‘Best Hotel in Jordan’ at the time, had 730 five-star reviews removed shortly after we pointed out to TripAdvisor that they looked dodgy.

Other highly ranked hotels around the world, from Las Vegas to Cairo, had a pattern of reviews that our data analysis suggested was suspicious. Even a dowdy West London Travelodge rang serious alarm bells.

Unfortunately TripAdvisor itself didn’t agree. It said that our methodology didn’t work. Confusingly it said this in the same email in which it told us that 14 of the 15 hotels that we sent it had had at least one suspicious review removed in the previous year.

This includes the hotel that had 730 reviews removed.

The Travelodge, unbeknownst to us, had previously been given a red badge – TripAdvisor’s most severe warning that it had been trying to manipulate reviews.

Travelodge admitted that it had been reprimanded for not dealing with an ‘irregular pattern of reviews’ but blamed it on a communication breakdown and insisted that the hotel’s reviews are now clean.

Have you spotted a suspicious review?

The implication of TripAdvisor’s response to our investigation was alarming.

Either our methodology is as effective as we think at finding hotels that are abusing the system (in which case you wonder why TripAdvisor doesn’t use something similar to make sure fake reviews don’t appear in the first place), or it’s as useless as the site claims and we could have just sent it 15 hotels picked out of a hat and still found that 93% of them were dodgy.

Just how ubiquitous are those fakes?

TripAdvisor, at its best, does manage to provide a system for warning about genuinely awful hotels. It’s certainly better than others we’ve seen, some of which barely seem to bother with checking that reviews are genuine at all.

But it needs to do better at catching the fakes. Have you ever visited a hotel that’s nothing at all like the reviews suggested?

Do you think TripAdvisor has a problem with fake reviews?

Comments

Hoteliers are well aware that TA reviews are subject to significant manipulation. We live in a tourist area, and we know many hoteliers who know the system is being abused to the point where they’re questioning whether it’s even worth playing by what ‘rules’ exist.

I’ve been reviewing on TA for many years but I inevitably write a long and detailed review, indicating areas where the hotel excels and areas where they could do a lot better. I’ve also given thought to how TA could check on the veracity of reviewers. And it’s not simple to do, even with full cooperation of the hotels.

A booking ref. might be the easiest way, but with the GDPR now in force, could even that be used?

Andrew says:
6 September 2019

It’s not just the fake reviews that are the issue, it’s the bad reviews that don’t make it on to the TA site. My wife and I stayed in a ‘5-star’ hotel (part of a large hotel chain) in Jamaica in 2017 with our 2 daughters (our second time to the island).

On the second night, the hotel roof caught fire and we were all evacuated for about 4 hours. The way that it was dealt with was completely shambolic. This was then followed by two weeks of unbelievably bad service; lifts breaking down with people in them (regularly); queues for each meal up to 30 minutes (to name a couple). We were then made to pay about £80 for the safe deposit box, after the hotel had already waived this due to the problems and the fire.

We were told that we could avoid this payment by signing a Non-Disclosure Agreement, preventing us from posting bad reviews and discussing our experience. We did not sign it, but a number of other guests did. I have since learned that this is not the only hotel chain to adopt this policy.

The hotel in question is highly rated on the TA site, but turned out to be the opposite. Sad, because Jamaica is a beautiful island and our previous experience had been fantastic.

I tried to post a negative review and it was censored by tripadvisor and I had to water it down. Yet all the fake 5* reviews seem to be able to be published without any problems!

I am dismayed by the fact that I find so many obviously inflated reviews on TripAdvisor ( the 5* review by people who have only ever posted one review is a case in hand…TA’s response that “everyone has to start by posting one review won’t wash “….these people never post second reviews, even months or years later ) On my last trip to Istanbul there were so many obviously false ratings that one would not know where to begin if one had the intention of reporting them to TA..and quite honestly I have better things to do with my time. TripAdvisor should be picking up on these obvious scams themselves but I daresay they’re not prepared to employ the necessary staff.

I totally agree with you Karen. I have reported fake reviews to tripadvisor but they are not interested in taking any action even when it is so obvious they are fake reviews.

The Director of tripadvisor on the news this morning tried to condemn Which’s evidence and said that tripadvisor have their own team of people who monitor for fake reviews and have sophisticated models to identify any reviews that are suspicious. That doesn’t hold true to me because when you report reviews that are obviously fake tripadvisor are not interested.

On the other hand, I gave a well deserved five star review to a small hotel on Trip Adviser once, and have nèver posted a review since as I rarely travel. I assume by this measure, my review should be removed or is null and void? I apreciate Which looking in to this and have found the other comments about negative reviews being removed alarming.

Jones says:
6 September 2019

The Astoria Playa in Alcudia has a few suspicious looking reviews. I read somewhere that they give you a bottle of bubbly if you write a 5 star review.

I have recently returned from the Sunrise Grand Select Crystal Bay Resort in Hurghada (no. 5 out of 231 hotels in Hurghada on tripadvisor).

I believe that many of the 5* reviews are fake or suspicious as there are so many that are only a few sentences of broken English. They are completed by first time reviewers and do not give any significant details of the hotel. A number of the reviews mention how clean the room was or how good housekeeping was. It is a 5 star hotel surely you expect as standard to have a clean room.

I wrote a review whilst I was there and gave it 2 stars because I was so unhappy and was getting nowhere with Guest Relations. I was then summoned to see the Quality Manager at the hotel. At this meeting, the Quality Manager wanted me to justify my comments because my review had made the hotel slip from no.5 to no. 6 ! At the end of the meeting he offered me a bribe – free access to the Waterpark (which I should have had anyway!) if I updated my review on tripadvisor.

A couple of days later a fellow guest informed me that a number of suspicious 5* reviews had been posted and the hotel was now in position no. 4. The hotel didn’t need me to update my review anymore and after that treated myself and my family unfavourably for the rest of the holiday by not allowing us to book restaurants that we were supposed to be allowed to etc.

Without the fake / suspicious reviews, based on my experience, the Sunrise Grand Select Crystal Bay Resort would not be any where near the top 5 of hotels in Hurghada and I feel I was duped into going there and wasted a holiday.

I watched the Director of tripadvisor on the news this morning and he was full of denial. He was like a politician and wouldn’t answer the questions put to him and just kept criticising Which’s evidence. He didn’t seem that concerned that fake reviews make up a significant number of the reviews on tripadvisor but more concerned with trying to condemn the independent review undertaken by Which.

Richard Earl of Bradford says:
11 September 2019

Definitely very suspicious, so many of the five-star reviews are from first-time reviewers, and they are written in very poor staccato English, clearly by the same person, registered under different names.

May I say that a couple of years ago I left an honest / middling review for a trendy Barcelona apartment chain.
A rep from said chain called me from Spain and said my review was unfair and stuck out as everyone else had given top ratings. He asked me to amend it in return for a refund of my cleaning fees.
I’m ashamed now but I did. I wouldn’t go back there and was disgusted with this practice however I participated, never again.

I stayed at a hotel in Majorca in August. Amazing reviews on TA. Place is an absolute hole. I pointed out to TA the majority of the reviews contained identical grammatical errors and listed staff names in the same order for praise. I heard nothing back, then noticed TA had corrected the grammatical errors that I had notified them of … themselves !! so the reviews would look less fake, unbelievable. true story, email me i’ll show you.

I am a Senior TripAdvisor reviewer – but I have to say that when I use TA for research into a hotel or restaurant etc. that I am considering using I try to look for reviews posted by folk who have posted quite a lot of reviews in the past. I don’t completely ignore new reviewers comments but do tend to treat then with caution. If there seem to be too many or almost all first time reviewers on a page then this should prompt you to be very careful.
Having said all this I still find TA to be a seriously good guide.

Richard Earl of Bradford says:
11 September 2019

Just look at Bar 61 in London, where they actually bribe customers to leave good reviews, the number of first time reviewers sticks out a mile, at one point it was number 2 for London, and instead of being the best tapas restaurant in London, it is probably the worst, Serrano ham out of a plastic packet is probably the worst offender there. Fortunately, it has now slipped to 19h, still far higher than it deserves to be.

I found identical, detailed reviews on booking.com of 2 different properties in Siem Reap “posted” by two ostensibly different reviewers from different countries. I emailed booking.com and notified them, but they of course never responded, probably because they’re complicit.

I am told by people in the hotel business that “guests” threaten bad reviews if a discount is not given. In addition to researching excellent reviews, please also consider the adverse reviews. Trip Advisor is not fit for purpose!

I have occasionally been asked to give a positive review for small items purchased on eBay. I make a point about being asked for a good review and there is no space to say anything else.

At the Royalton Cancun the staff physically take phones from guests and post 5* reviews from them naming themselves as wonderful. As above posts, often these had obvious grammatical errors. The staff get extra pay for these comments and harass you daily to post on TA. Looking at their TA profile there are so many of these fake reviews. Complained to TUI (along with other issues about this hotel) and they completely dismissed our concerns as ‘it’s the hotel staff and nothing to do with them’. TUI are clearly happy to continue taking people’s money in return for misleading holidays.

Richard Earl of Bradford says:
11 September 2019

TripAdvisor also gives malicious reviewers great opportunities, my restaurant Porters English Restaurant in Covent Garden received the following review, which we took seriously.

“Candoguy
London, England

Contributor
11 reviews

11 helpful votes
“Not recommended !”
Reviewed 24 April 2011
I’ve lived in London for over 20 years and I’d never been to this restaurant until today. I was really looking forward to eating in an English restaurant and had expected a very high standard given that I’d presumed that the owners were “doing their duty” and promoting English cuisine in order to augment its reputation.

The restaurant looked quite high standard from the outside and I assumed that people in too informal attire would be refused entry. However, once inside the first thing that struck me was how dated it looked. We were led towards the back of the restaurant and seated by the maitre d’. The waiter supplied us with a menu and we ordered our drinks and food.

The food was very poor and the presentation very basic. Most of it was what I’d describe as stodge ! I’d describe it as very bad pub food – it is mostly pies, as another poster stated. Most, if not all, of the food seemed to be from frozen.

The service wasn’t bad though a little slow despite it not being very busy. The toilets were absolutely disgusting and some of the worst I’ve ever seen. They didn’t appear to have been cleaned for days.

I’m ashamed of this restaurant calling itself “English”. I would expect that any restaurant of this kind to have a duty and responsibility to promote proper English cuisine.

I would not recommend this place to anyone and certainly would never advise a foreigner to go there expecting English food.

Wetherspoons, unfortunately, would be a far safer bet ! ”

We were appalled and wrote to the reviewer several times without ever getting a reply.

Then eight months later we received the following review.


RicardoZZ
London, United Kingdom

Reviewer
4 reviews
“The worst meal of my life”
Reviewed 22 December 2011 NEW
1
person found this review helpful
I’ve lived in London for over 10 years and I’d not been to this restaurant until this visit. I was looking forward to eating in an English restaurant rather than the “Ethnic” eateries and had expected a very high standard given that I’d presumed that the owners were “doing their duty” and promoting English cooking.

The restaurant looked great from outside and I assumed that people in too informal attire would be refused entry. However, once inside the first thing that struck me was how old fashioned it looked. Grotty is the work that came to mind. We were led towards the back of the restaurant and seated by the maitre d’. The waiter supplied us with a menu and we ordered our drinks and food.

The food was shockingly bad and the presentation very basic. Most of it was what I’d describe as school dinner food ! I’d describe it as very bad pub food – it is mostly pies, as another poster stated. the food seemed to be reheated from frozen.

The service was bad and slow despite it not being very busy. The toilets were absolutely disgusting and some of the worst I’ve ever seen. There was vomit on the floor and nobody had thought to use a toilet brush in the toilet bowl. They didn’t appear to have been cleaned for days and my stomach heaved.

I’m ashamed of this restaurant calling itself “English”. I would expect that any restaurant of this kind to have a duty and responsibility to promote proper English cuisine and standards. I would not recommend this place to anyone and certainly would never advise a foreigner to go there expecting English food.

Normally I do not complain, but felt compelled to tell the maitre d’ why I had not left a tip. He was positively insolent, and told me the restaurant was owned by the Earl of Bradford and he would mention my opinion to the great Lord. I felt “put down” and shocked to have been treated so shabbily.

I expect the Noble proprietor eats somewhere better. MacDonalds perhaps.”

It struck me as rather familiar and fortunately I have a rather retentive memory, so I looked back through TripAdvisor and found the first review, and then complained to TripAdvisor, when both were removed, however, unless I had taken action that would not have happened.

We had also received the following on Yelp (quite as bad as TripAdvisor, if not worse):

“• Anders L.
London

25/4/2011
I’ve lived in London for over 20 years and I’d never been to this restaurant until today. I was really looking forward to eating in an English restaurant and had expected a very high standard given that I’d presumed that the owners were “doing their duty” and promoting English cuisine in order to augment its reputation.

The restaurant looked quite high standard from the outside and I assumed that people in too informal attire would be refused entry. However, once inside the first thing that struck me was how dated it looked. We were led towards the back of the restaurant and seated by the maitre d’. The waiter supplied us with a menu and we ordered our drinks and food.

The food was very poor and the presentation very basic. Most of it was what I’d describe as stodge ! I’d describe it as very bad pub food – it is mostly pies, as another poster stated. Most, if not all, of the food seemed to be from frozen.

The service wasn’t bad though a little slow despite it not being very busy. The toilets were absolutely disgusting and some of the worst I’ve ever seen. They didn’t appear to have been cleaned for days.

I’m ashamed of this restaurant calling itself “English”. I would expect that any restaurant of this kind to have a duty and responsibility to promote proper English cuisine.

I would not recommend this place to anyone and certainly would never advise a foreigner to go there expecting English food.

Wetherspoons, unfortunately, would be a far safer bet !”

Naturally, Yelp would not remove it.

A regular feature of the really bad reviews that we received was that they received enormous numbers of helpful votes, and we were usually blocked from communicating with the reviewer.

We need to face up to the obvious fact that both the hotelier and TA are in it for the money (TA through advertising and its booking machine) and the last thing TA wants to see is an authoritative statement from a reputable organisation like Which? that its review system is being manipulated. Hence their robust rubbishing of that review. In an era when a large proportion of our news is fake it seems that they can do so with impunity. And how did our seemingly ready acceptance of “fake” come about ? A fake is a copy (often a good copy) of the real thing, certainly in the Art world, but “fake” news is not. Lies and dishonesty are more appropriate descriptors IMHO.

I am a senior trip advisor contributor. I review wherever I go, and fairly, according to me opinion. I am not however allowed to comment on ‘day trips’ to towns and cities. I recently wasted a lot of money going on a special steam train trip to Gloucester, only to find I only had 2.5 hours there. It was just like any other city centre, nothing special, a wasted journey (apart from the train).

I have been writing reviews for Tripadvisor since 2005. I now have over 1250 reviews to my name. I don’t leave that many totally negative reviews but a number of years ago I had a dreadful one night stay at a hotel in Tyneside, the worst hotel that I have ever stayed at in England. As a result left a somewhat damning one star review. I was not alone in leaving bad reviews on the hotel in question. However in having a look at all the reviews it had received I noticed that the hotel had received 3 glowing five star reviews in the preceding months from the same person. The reviewer in question had never ever left any other reviews. All very suspicious so I reported this to tripadvisor. The outcome was that within a couple of weeks the second and third reviews left by the reviewer had been deleted by tripadvisor. Therefore in my experience tripadvisor will take action if relevant information is passed to them.

I’ve always left fair and accurate reviews when we’ve stayed in a hotel or guest house. I value other peoples reviews and do use them routinely and carefully to help choose where we will stay. The star values of the properties we visited did not reflect our findings when we got there.
I have noticed recently, that the review formats used by sites like “hotels” make it very difficult for you to know just what the overall value of your review will be before you have posted it, at which point, you can’t edit. The criteria used to determine the star rating do not allow people to give a fair and accurate reflection of what they experienced and seem to be skewed to make the review ratings appear higher than they should be. They don’t ask the questions that might bring in low star ratings. They also do not differentiate between different classes of property.
I would like to see questions such as :
*How much did you pay per night Less than £50, £50-75, £75-100, £100-£150, £150-200, £200+
*Please choose all words that describe the property: Dated, unacceptable, old fashioned, scruffy, cluttered, acceptable, basic, standard, modern, minimalist, upmarket, designer, above average, classy, presentable, very nice, beautiful, other…..
*Please choose all words that describe the standard of hospitality at the property: Non existent, minimal, inadequate, acceptable, very good, welcoming, slow, other ……….
Given the price you paid,
*What was your first impression of the hotel/guest house? 1 2 3 4 5
*How would you rate the standard of furnishing in your room? 1 2 3 4 5
*How would you rate the standard of your bed? bed-linen? towels? 1 2 3 4 5
*How would you rate the standard of your bathroom 1 2 3 4 5
*How would you rate the standard of the cleaning 1 2 3 4 5
* Did the photographs shown on the website reflect the current state of the property? 1 2 3 4 5
*The breakfast offering too needs to be categorised and rated
Were there any issues you feel should be brought to the attention of other potential guests?……..

We were disappointed two out of three times on a recent vacation, with toilets that had not been cleaned for weeks, flat-pack style furniture several years beyond its life, filthy sofa, table balanced against the wall with the legs unattached, random yard-sale furniture, thick black mould around showers, cobwebs, very badly historically water damaged ceilings unrepaired, hole in wall, next doors bathroom separated from our room by a door shaped plank of wood. And much more. We need to be able to let other people see it how it is!! In both cases, the bed was good, the bedding was good, and the towels were newish and clean. But the best word to describe the rest of the offering was squalor.

What I’m really asking for is a much more honest accountable and reflective review system, universally applied across the industry.

More power to your elbow Which – this is a very much needed cause!!

Robin Dadson says:
11 September 2019

Some years asgo I received a ‘phone call from a friend asking for my advice and comments on a local pub/hotel as it looked too good to be true to him. Sure enough when I looked at the profile on Tripadvisor it had no resemblance whatsoever to the true circumstances. My friend duly reported the situation to ‘Trading Standards’ and the details were removed immediately. This did not, however, prevent the proprietors giving themselves glowing write ups for the next 12 to 18 months – during one month out of season the venue received around 18 wonderful postings whilst around 15 other places in our small town got about 6 between them !!! The proprietors eventually went bust within less than 3 years of taking over and the place, which is now open under new management, fully deserves the praise it currently gets.

Whilst not referring to a specific case on TA the whole subject is applicable to the Internet and the “On Line” world in a nutshell. See also “Trusted Trader” et al if it didn’t take its self seriously then it would just be a laugh, but in truth the Law Makers have waved a White Flag at the WWW and the online wild west,
without even really trying. Most web sites do not even comply with the basic rules that do exist, the rest well … it’s worse than “Peckham Market” and a couple of famous Traders! When we have the Leader of the USA and now The PM of the UK adopting the less than statesman like strategy of “double book keeping” there is no hope of ever getting to grips with Fraud. The direct way in which false statements designed, planned, and replicated over and over again with the sole reason of making money has been allowed is shocking. On the one hand your pint, your gallon of fuel, your Melton Pork Pie etc etc are all regulated beyond belief…. but pretty much everything else is “BUYER BE AWARE” Simply assume its all a Lie and you won’t be far wrong. Its very sad we are now well and truly in the era when people believe a computer … ( Yet despite billions being spent on Adverts and promotion of A I ( artificial intelligence ) Which is nothing of the sort ) All Apps, programs, Phones, Tablets, Pc’s etc etc are designed by people who are employed in many cases by multi nationals who are run by and funded by Billionaires to make even more money.

The one thing that is Artificial …….. pretty much a large % of the content found on the Web. Including so called news items and channels. The web has been taken over by crooks as the www does not have its own version of a police force. In Life you are on camera, tracked by your phone, & car, not mention Alexa etc … all very highly invasive, profiled by all your spending, your details traded to thousands of companies without your knowledge. Yet the business’s you choose to buy from are in many cases not who you think they are, often not where you think they are, sell products with dubious claims with origins that can not be traced and who follow few rules. ( of course some are bonfide)

Finally, well done Which, for highlighting the blatant misguidings of Tripadvisor. I had the awful experience of staying at one of their highly reviewed and rated apartments in Nice. The place was infested with cockroaches. I had to threaten Tripadvisor with court action before they decided to give me a partial refund for ruining my holiday. Weeks after my stay, the apartment was still showing as available on Tripadvisors website. After my experience, I looked further into the reviews of this apartment and found they were fake.

I have just returned from a short break booked through booking .com
I chose the Raven-hall hotel near Robin Hood bay North Yorkshire as it had good reviews
it didn’t live up to these and I had to give it a poor rating this has been removed and the only ratings for it on booking . com are good
The place actually needs a complete refurb
I will never believe online reviews again