Around 20% of online hotel customer reviews may be unreliable or fake, according to Dr Markus Schuckert and Professor Rob Law of the School of Hotel and Tourism Management (SHTM) at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University and a co-researcher.
After examining more than forty thousand TripAdvisor reviews of all star-rated hotels in Hong Kong in a recently published study, they warn that the high proportion of suspicious reviews should ring an “alarm bell” for customers.
Although these reviews are not necessarily fake, they can be misleading and waste customers’ decision-making time. Given that many customers depend on online hotel reviews to make their purchasing decisions, the problem has serious implications for the hotel sector.
E-commerce platforms have become so popular that online sales of travel products, particularly by hotels and airlines, have become the “biggest part of their business”, write the researchers. One reason for this rising popularity is the availability of online reviews and feedback posted by customers, which help potential customers to make informed decisions. From the service provider’s perspective, online reviews provide “fast, instant and easily accessible customer feedback”, and good entries can increase their revenue.
Understandably, customers want to book with the hotel or restaurant with the highest ratings. The researchers note that these people are prepared to spend a considerable amount of time reading online reviews before making decisions because they “want to find the right place and be sure about it”. Customers prefer “large feedback platforms and consumer-centric sites”, which are perceived as offering the most “objective, true or authentic opinions”.
However, the researchers warn that although “every e-commerce platform has a system and procedure to ensure the authenticity”, there is growing concern that companies, or customers, manipulate reviews or give false ratings for various reasons. Owners, for instance, may post positive reviews themselves, or get friends or others to do so, to attract customers and boost sales. Conversely, they may post bad reviews to “defame competitors”.
Although false and misleading reviews can lead to consumers making the wrong purchasing decisions, there is still insufficient evidence on the extent of such practices. One reason, the researchers note, is the lack of a reliable method for detecting fake entries. Detecting them by differences in writing style, for instance, “assumes that the writing styles of manipulators will be different from those of genuine customers”. The researchers thus designed a method of identifying suspicious reviews and conducted a study to determine the presence and proportion of suspicious postings and to “explore who tends to post” them.
The focus of that study was TripAdvisor, which allows reviewers to leave two types of numerical ratings for hotels – one overall rating, and six specific ratings for service, value, sleep quality, cleanliness, location and rooms. The ratings can range from 1 for the worst quality to 5 for the best. The anomaly that some entries show a considerable discrepancy between the overall rating and the specific ratings prompted the researchers to consider whether this might be an indicator of a suspicious or unreliable review.