Carlton Hotels & Fake TripAdvisor Review Allegations

TripAdvisor's many faces everything-prA story yesterday in the Irish Times may have gone unnoticed outside that emerald isle, but the implications for travelers should be made manifest. According to the news, Carlton Hotel Group allegedly attempted to skew TripAdvisor reviews in favor of the hotel groups offerings. This whole affair begs the question; “Is there such a thing as conspiracy to commit fake reviews?”

TripAdvisor reviews as a valid means of choosing a booking, have been in question for some time now, seems now to be an ongoing tragedy of errors. Irish Times consumer affairs correspondent Conor Pope offered this:

“Internal communication seen by The Irish Times indicates that the Carlton Hotel Group encouraged dozens of employees and other nominees to post positive reviews of the chain’s 10 hotels to TripAdvisor.”

Pope goes on to describe what can only be seen as the biggest bad PR fiasco any hospitality chain could envision – being caught dirty dealing. What Pope uncovered was a string of email correspondences that showed key Carlton Hotel executives (at least) conceiving a plan to have 5 fake reviewers from each of the chain’s hotels skew the TA matrix of results. Or put bluntly, fake reviews in order for the chain to take (as Pope relates the email back and forth) “a more pro-active management of the reviews on Trip Advisor.”

Of course, both TripAdvisor and Carlton Hotel spokespeople perform the required damage control for the news break. TripAdvisor launched their “Interpol-ish” investigative team (tongue in cheek), and the hotel chain swore that the plan was never implemented (as if that matters). Given the gravity of this Irish Times story, of course the hotel chain’s barristers issued their statements, a segment of which reads:

“In so far as our client is aware, the actions referred to in the email of 14 July 2010 were never acted upon by any employee of our client and is unaware of any such posts being made on the ‘TripAdvisor’ website by employees in the manner suggested.”

Now, the PR campaigning, reputation management, and other fire dampening efforts are underway, and Pope’s story will either grow or die down – victim of the next big or little trend in news. Tnooz is already reporting Carlton’s and TripAdvisor’s statements in effect, while the comments on Linda Fox’s article reflect the down side, and I quote from a hostel owner Steve Nicoli:

“…as a backpackers hostel owner for the last year. i would confirm that properties putting up their own reviews is widespread on tripadvisor. complaints to tripadvisor are hardly taken seriously. it used to be that you had to explain any complaint about fake reviews in no more than 50 words. tripadvisor dont want to know about fake reviews. they just want as many reviews on their site as possible.”

Interestingly, on TripAdvisor, if one looks for the Carlton Group Hotels the community there is already chattering about alleged fake reviews and strategies for avoiding being duped. One so called Destination Expert there, sydneynick, just comes out and says:

“Trip Advisor is awash with fake reviews, and the staff do nothing effective about the problem. I ignore the TA ranking (which is meaningless), all reviews from people who have only one or two posts, and reviews that are obviously slanted for or against an establishment. This usually does not leave much to go on.”

27,000 contributions entitles that TripAdvisor user to their opinion, while the company’s spokespeople are surely entitled to their take on this story.  TripAdvisor site communication head Emma Shaw no doubt feel her only job is to discuss fake reviews lately. She told BBC Brazil about TA’s “extremely efficient” system, she told Kaleel Sakakeeny over at Technorati about TA’s severe penalties for fake reviews, is quoted on RCI Ventures explaining TripAdvisor’s changing their dogma to “reviews from our community” – and the list goes on. The PR arm of TripAdvisor has been fencing with this reviews problem for some time now, with an apparently never ending saga of haunting brand horror stories. And make no mistake, reviews are the TripAdvisor brand.

The world adopted the owl with the binoculars, the product from Expedia having become the most powerful booking and visibility tool in the online world, where travel is concerned. Finally, looking at the wisdom within the TripAdvisor crowd, a user called Clauds, from County Kildare, offers advice better than even Edelman (guess who TA hired to help on fake review PR? could give. Talking about fake reviews, Clauds offers:

“TA can’t really be blamed – how do you separate honest reviews from fake ones (good or bad)? How do you decide which ones to cull? I suppose if there’s a spate of very good reviews for one hotel all of a sudden you can smell a rat. But if these reviews turn up spaced then what are you to do? It’s up to the website user to decide for himself how to read and understand the reviews. I admit to reading reviews before booking a B&B or hotel but I take them with a big pinch of salt.”

Now there’s a transparent and true PR tactic for Edelman, Expedia, TripAdvisor, and the suits running the travel circus to follow. Just say “you’ll try” and prevent the worst of the falseness. The fact is (and maybe the one no one wants some to know) is that ANY online portal can be gamed. And too, business owners mimic their individual human counterparts – cheaters remain cheaters.

As to whether or not Carlton carried out their doomsday fake reviews plan – no one can say, so far. Maybe some hotel execs are only guilty of conspiracy to commit fake TripAdvisor reviews, or not. I wonder if a new penalty will be levied for such offenses?

Phil out, for now.

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