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A matter of opinion

You can’t always believe what you read on the Internet. Yes, “fake news” can be a real thing when it comes to online travel reviews. With a growing number of user-generated feedback sites online, it is important to use sensible judgment when reading reviews.

TripAdvisor and Yelp have revolutionized the way we analyze the quality of businesses like hotels, tour companies and restaurants. While we use these reviews to make travel decisions, it is important to realize that we don’t always know the user’s frame of reference. Is this their first time visiting that type of hotel? Or that destination? Do they normally dine out at similar establishments in the same area so they have a good gauge from which to compare products? Is what is important to you the same that’s important to another reader (think about families versus business travelers)?

That traveler who is complaining about bugs on a Caribbean guestroom balcony may not realize that the problem is a function of the destination over the property itself. We must review the reviewer in a way before accepting their feedback as fact.

Traditionally, we have relied on trusted publications with seasoned journalists that hopefully put bias aside and report with objectivity and an understanding of the overall market. But with user-generated reviews, this trust is shielded by anonymity and the possibility of either lack of knowledge or shameless promotion (or defamation of a competitor).

While many businesses encourage patrons to post a review of their experience online (some hotel companies like Best Western even show the latest reviews—the good, the bad and the ugly— on their own websites), hotel owners sometimes notice that patrons announce their online intentions in advance to gain perks. There is even a company that offers travelers printed business cards to hand to the front desk indicating they are there to write a review for TripAdvisor.

Still, there can be tremendous value in online reviews. Meaningful guidance on specific room numbers, types or views to request, details on property renovations, and photos untouched by the editing brush are all a huge boon for travelers.

“According to our research, more than 86 percent of consumers say reviews are an essential resource when making a purchasing decisions,” says Theresa O’Neil, SVP of marketing, PowerReviews, which specializes in ratings, reviews, and question-and-answer technology for more than 1,000 global brands and retailers. “To protect against fake reviews, companies should have fraud detection triggers in place including IP address trackers, soliciting verified buyers and moderating all reviews before they are posted. We typically flag less than 1 percent of reviews as fake, but brands and retailers must take the threat seriously to build and maintain trust with consumers.”

A Pinch of Salt

How can we combat the issue? Cornell University researchers developed a computer algorithm dubbed Review Skeptic meant to spot fake online reviews by comparing syntax in legitimate versus fake reviews. The program looks for extreme language with vague superlatives that give little details on the exact features of the hotel, for example.

According to researchers, the lack of details on spatial configurations of a reviewed location is another indication that the review could be fake. Generalizations with little details on the exact layout and location can be a solid giveaway.

What if the reviewer never even visited the location? Twitter users took charge with a campaign using the hashtag #noreceiptnoreview aimed at targeting false reviews on TripAdvisor.

Online review writers should consider their words carefully before taking to the keyboard because they can have a strong effect on business. To be fair, one lone poor experience does not a blistering review make; service-oriented products deserve a second chance before being labeled as poor. The consequences can be dire in some instances.

For example, Uber drivers can lose their license without maintaining a 4.6 service score. Even a less than perfect score can spell disaster. Uber’s rule for drivers is intended for consumer protection, but a few crazy, off-handed or unfair reviews can destroy someone’s chosen career.

When less than stellar review scores can be so punitive, it only behooves people to leave a top-notch score unless something truly and fairly went wrong, and even then, the business deserves a second chance at success.

Online reviews must be written with the same gravitas one would assume standing in a more public forum and debating with others who may have had differing experiences. When all else fails, discard the most glowing and harshest reviews and study the middle ground. That’s where the most value can be found.

By Ramsey Qubein