The pervasiveness of technology has collateral damage: trust and accuracy. As the digital landscape evolves, bad actors seek to manipulate. The resulting tenuous trust in online content complicates reputation management for hotels.
Consumers tend to trust user-generated content (UGC) far more than other sources of information. Nielsen Customer Trust Index found that 92% trust UGC over traditional marketing. The appeal of consumer-to-consumer content has given great power to manipulators. Fake reviews and inflated engagement have become part of the online experience.
Nearly since the advent of online reviews, the hotel industry has been combating fake reviews. Without a means to verify a purchase, many sites would make it easy for anyone to leave a review regardless of actual experience with the business.
Today, the review tracking systems are far more sophisticated: reviews link to purchases, algorithms detect fraud, and hoteliers monitor vigorously. While each review platform approaches review veracity differently, the result is a filter that captures the majority of suspicious activity.
It’s this minority that gets the most attention. Most algorithms use review scores, or an internal number that accounts for review quality, quantity, and recency. So a few false reviews can skew this number, which then affects a hotel’s placement in search results on most travel booking sites. False reviews also impact a brand’s reputation.
Whether positive or negative in sentiment, fake reviews game platforms -- and foster an atmosphere of distrust among consumers forced to make their own conclusions after sifting through reviews. From blatantly false reviews to biased ones, there’s a spectrum of abuse that muddies the waters.
Navigating through the choppy waters of fake reviews is fraught. Consumers might not be able to spot a fake review, lending it more credence than it should. Only 16% of respondents in BrightLocal’s 2017 Consumer Review survey could always identify a fake review, underscoring how important reputation management is for hotels.
The threat of fake reviews is ongoing and omnipresent. When asked about fake reviews of their own businesses, a majority of business owners had experienced some level of false negative and/or positive reviews.
How to fight back:
- Never solicit fake reviews or post defamatory reviews about competitors.
- Be proactive.
- Report any suspicious review activity.
- Highlight your honest and transparent approach to reviews with guests.
- Build trust and earn word-of-mouth.
- Provide the best guest experience that attracts glowing reviews organically.
Fake reviews may receive the bulk of the attention, but inflated engagement is also on the rise. This is an issue for the hotel industry, which often invests in influencer marketing to create organic marketing moments among targeted followings.
A recent New York Times article reveals just how easy it is to inflate engagement on YouTube -- and how hard it is for the platforms to combat paid views. Martin Vassilev, a fake views entrepreneur, knows that resistance is futile:
“I can deliver an unlimited amount of views to a video. They’ve tried to stop it for so many years, but they can’t stop it. There’s always a way around. The only way YouTube could eliminate this is if they removed the view counter altogether. But that would defeat the purpose of YouTube.”
This issue is not limited to YouTube. There are organized “engagement pods” that like each other's posts on Instagram, and there are firms that promise increased engagement for a too-good-to-be-true price.
While there’s little incentive for an individual hotel to pay for engagement, an influencer could quickly (and affordably) boost the perceived value of a paid engagement. Vanity metrics still have pull, duping marketers into thinking a partnership was more fruitful than it really was.
How to fight back:
- Be very selective when it comes to influencers.
- Analyze actual engagement of an influencer’s following rather than vanity metrics alone.
- Never buy likes or artificial engagement. Report those who do.
- Avoid paying for performance, as that can encourage artificial inflation of engagement.
Evolving regulatory framework
Recently, the platforms themselves are increasingly public with their determination to punish bad actors. TripAdvisor, which led a detailed internal investigation to snag a business in Italy selling fake reviews, won a conviction with nine months of actual jail time.
TripAdvisor celebrated a potential turning tide, saying:
"We see this as a landmark ruling for the Internet," Brad Young, an attorney for TripAdvisor, told reporter Alex Horton at The Washington Post. "Writing fake reviews has always been fraud, but this is the first time we've seen someone sent to jail as a result."
Even with this momentum, jail time is a rare occurrence for fake review peddlers. That’s why review platforms have severe consequences for those that don’t play by the rules.
The most visible consequence is visual: Hotels found to be in violation risk having a permanent badge on their listing, which warns travelers of potential distrust. There’s also a potential hit to revenue, with hotels suspected of fraudulent behavior dropping or disappearing completely.
The risks to reputation and revenue are generally not worth any benefit of stacking reviews in a hotel’s favor. Amidst this backdrop, hotels can provide more certainty and trust to guests by leaning into honest and transparent reviews and views. If the younger generation is aware of the bots that can fake behavior, how does that affect trust in travel? And trust in reviews?
Reviews are a powerful ally; the last thing we want is to cause fatal distrust in the accuracy of guest reviews.
Travelers now have personalized sifting algorithms, honed after countless hours online. These internal filters cut through the crap and drive decision-making. Be a trusted source of information, solicit reviews from guests, and respond regularly to as many reviews as possible. This is the best way to build trust in travel.
We’re “connected like never before.”