If ever a single case epitomised the problems for TripAdvisor, it has to be Buccament Bay, St Vincent. On 7th March, a reviewer claimed that a previous 5 star, glowing review she had written last year was bogus. She stated that it was one of many fake reviews posted by investors in the property and even named an' agent' that she said was also responsible for posting multiple fake reviews. Shortly after, both the glowing review and the 'confession were deleted by TripAdvisor. So the immediate question is - were they both false - or has TripAdvisor deleted at least one genuine review because they simply don't know?
Naturally the first thing consumers are going to do in such circumstances is take a look at the remaining reviews.
As of today (13th March 2012), there are 135 reviews and the hotel is ranked #2 in St.Vincent. 93 of the reviews are rated as 5 star - 'excellent'.4 of these have been posted in the last couple of days, all by first time, one time reviewers. The one before those, (also a first time, one time reviewer) says"Where have all the critical reviews gone?" Of the negative reviews, many carry similar allegations to the 'confession' review - tales of misrepresentation and unfinished building works.
Dig a little deeper and you find a history of allegations, some praise and deleted posts on the TripAdvisor forums too. Some of the deleted posts have been repeated on a blog that has the sole purpose of attacking the owners of the resort,UK based Harlequin Hotels & Resorts. Again review fraud (along with many other allegations) is claimed on this blog. Of course, this raises another common problem - can you believe what’s written on a blog?
Interestingly, an article written about the resort in the UK Daily Telegraph, written back in April 2011 contains the line "And don't believe everything you read about Buccament on TripAdvisor. Most of the gushing reviews posted on the website have been written by investors."
Just to add more complexity to this case, at least one newspaper that was looking to cover it, apparently had a threat of legal action from specialist libel lawyers Cater-Ruck. What's more, Harlequin and their resorts have had a torrid time on the internet and in various publications with, for example cases of large scale fraud being reported by the company and all manner of counter-accusations.
So which of the reviews on TripAdvisor are genuine? That's a real challenge. It appears that either there is a campaign being waged against the owners of the property which TripAdvisor is contributing to or there is a problem with the positive reviews. Either way, the difficulties for TripAdvisor (and all other unverified feedback sites) are clear - a case like this gives TripAdvisor and their claims to reliability and fraud detection a real credibility problem and it's one that will continue to grow as more cases like this are inevitably revealed.
A new blog making further allegations has appeared on the internet: http://www.harlequin-warning.co.uk/ and a new thread on TripAdvisor: http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowTopic-g147237-i26-k5241902-Harlequin_properties-Caribbean.html
The Reliability Test
Just how reliable can unverified review sites be? TripAdvisor was founded, for sure on the basis and foundation of honest reviewers giving honest feedback. But as the influence has grown and the scale becomes greater and greater, the cracks in reliability become more and more apparent. In addition to those with malicious agendas that seek to harm reputable businesses, 'professional' review fraudsters with multiple accounts and IP proxy addresses to avoid detection have appeared and unquestionably successfully manipulate results. And when examined closely, you start to realise that increasingly the truth is not always to be found on such sites. There appear to be distinct failings even in what they set out to do - protect and inform consumers.
As examples of this, you have situations where for example, a hotel that was found guilty of being responsible for the severe illness of hundreds of holidaymakers over an extensive period, still has a positive profile on TripAdvisor during that period. How can that be? Well that would be down to the exceptional number of positive reviews that were published at the same time. In fact, where this hotel is concerned, there is real competition when it comes to positive reviews amongst the competing hotels in their area - with several having thousands of reviews, way way above the average in other parts of the world. According to TripAdvisor's statistics, 95 hotels in just the resort of Punta Cana have 94,000 reviews and 100,000 photos.
In other instances, you have hotels and restaurants that have been closed by the authorities for the most severe hygiene violations and conditions - described by official inspectors as filthy and dangerous - but not only do they not make the infamous TripAdvisor 'dirties hotels' type lists - they don't even get a significant number of reviews on the site. Yet those that have been included in such lists actually appear to have received a clean bill of health from official inspectors.
There really does seem to be something rotten in the state of review sites and the sooner it is fixed (and the only real way is by authentication), then the sooner consumers will be able to get the reliable feedback that they deserve.
Food Poisoning Case http://www.guardian.co.uk/
Example of high number of reviews in Dominican Republic - http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/
US Hotel closed by authorities - http://www.ajc.com/news/
Brooklyn Pizzeria closed by authorities more than once - http://articles.
UK Hotel Kitchen hygiene closure - http://www.scarborough.gov.