Weigh Online Travel Reviews Carefully

Compare opinions on several sites, and don’t neglect word of mouth.

Before dropping a few hundred dollars on a fancy hotel room with rave online reviews, be sure that what you’re reading is legitimate and not the work of a hired writer or the business itself.

As online review platforms such as Yelp and TripAdvisor become more popular, businesses have a greater incentive to game the system—drumming up buzz with planted accolades or tarnishing competitors with unfair criticism. Last year, the New York state attorney general’s office cracked down on 19 companies that solicited fake reviews to prop up local services. “Companies have to decide how they’ll manage their online reputation and figure out how they can generate good buzz about themselves without generating it themselves,” says Michael Luca, a Harvard Business School professor who studied fraudulent Yelp reviews.

The problem has not gone unnoticed by the review sites themselves. Yelp filters out 25% of submissions using algorithms. Other sites have someone inspect the reviews before publishing them. Some sites, such as Expedia and OpenTable, require the reviewer to have made a reservation for a hotel room or restaurant through the site before detailing his or her experiences; others highlight contributors with authenticated profiles or alert consumers to suspicious content. “These sites are paying better attention to the problem of fake reviews,” says Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University.

But no site has a foolproof system, so it’s important to cross-reference write-ups for the same establishment or service on different sites. If you’re looking for a specialized service such as a moving company, take more care to scrutinize the reviewer, not just the review. A full profile, a history of contributing to the site and a “verified user” tag are good signs. (Scam artists are less likely to take the time to establish a longtime, identifiable presence on a review platform.) Look for specific and thoughtful details that suggest the writer has actually experienced and reflected on the service. And be wary of an outlier—say, a review full of compliments in a sea of complaints, or vice versa. “Look for the ‘wisdom of the crowds,’ ” says Goldman. “What does the crowd have to say about the respective players in the industry? If something is popular with a lot of people, it will probably meet my needs.”

Don’t go overboard in trying to investigate the authenticity of every opinion, however. “Do a cost-benefit analysis,” says Luca. “For low-stakes purchases, and for purchases where there are so many reviews they can’t possibly be driven by somebody trying to game the system, [fake reviews] are less of an issue.”

And don’t neglect word of mouth. “Asking people you know and trust is the first thing you should do before trusting strangers online ,” says Boston University professor Georgios Zervas, who coauthored the Yelp study with Luca.If you’re the one penning a negative assessment, be aware that thin-skinned businesses may target you with legal threats—justified or not—to preserve their reputation. Avoid an unpleasant situation by sticking to indisputable facts, toning down hyperbole and emphasizing that this is your personal experience, suggests Goldman.

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