Some of the highest-ranked hotels on TripAdvisor reached the top by using fake reviews, a new investigation from Which? Travel has shown.
We analysed almost 250,000 hotel reviews on the site, comparing the profile of five-star reviewers with those who left only three stars. While it’s been suggested in the past that fake reviews are most common on small B&Bs and guesthouses, we looked at the highest-profile hotels in their respective regions.
The 15 that looked most blatantly suspicious included some of the best-rated hotels in the Middle East, four of the best-rated hotels in Las Vegas, and one of the hotels in Britain’s second-biggest hotel chain, Travelodge. When we reported them to TripAdvisor, it admitted that 14 of them – 93% – had been caught with dodgy reviews in the past year.
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The best hotels in the world
Anybody Googling ‘the best hotel’ in their holiday destination will be presented with a TripAdvisor top 10 among the first results. We looked at the top tens for tourist destinations around the world.
In Las Vegas two of the top 10 had received almost half (48% and 41%) of their five-star reviews from reviewers who’d never reviewed anywhere else. Two more had a surprisingly high number of once-only reviewers. On its own this might not be a red flag. TripAdvisor points out that even genuine reviewers’ were first-timers once but, coupled with further analysis of other star ratings, it raised our suspicions.
For other cities we looked at, including London, Paris, Cape Town and Barcelona, we did not find these extreme patterns. In Las Vegas, our results suggested, some of the hotels were exploiting weaknesses in TripAdvisor’s fakes prevention system to boost their ratings and get themselves higher up the page.
Video: Inside our TripAdvisor investigation
Watch our video to see how we flagged suspicious hotel reviews
Hotel chain cheats
We also compared the star rating patterns of 10 Travelodge hotels and 10 Premier Inns – the two largest hotel chains in the UK.
Premier Inn’s results did not raise suspicions, but at two of the Travelodges almost half of the hundreds of five-star reviews – 48% and 40% – came from contributors who’d never reviewed anywhere else. The figure for three-star reviews was much lower.
When we contacted TripAdvisor,it told us that one of the hotels – the Travelodge Wembley – had previously received a red penalty badge. The badge warned travellers that it was investigating possible manipulation of reviews by ‘individuals or entities associated with this property’. This is the site’s most severe warning. It’s reserved for cases where a hotel ‘repeatedly fails to remedy its behaviour and refuses to cooperate with TripAdvisor’s investigators’.
We contacted Travelodge and it admitted that it had been reprimanded for its behaviour on the site. ‘We experienced a breakdown in our internal communication when TripAdvisor identified an irregular pattern of reviews at our Wembley Central Travelodge Hotel,’ it confessed.
‘Unfortunately on this occasion that matter was not managed effectively within the timeframe, and we have taken appropriate action to ensure this does not happen again… We are satisfied that the reviews accurately reflect the customer experience at the hotel.’
Travellers none the wiser
TripAdvisor told us that, of the 14 hotels that turned out to have had suspicious reviews removed in the past year, two had been red-badged (including the Travelodge) and six had been penalised for their behaviour. At the time that we looked at them, however, none had any warning, and both red badges had been removed.
Potential guests would have had no idea that anybody had been trying to cheat the system. One of the hotels we looked at, the then ‘best hotel in Jordan’, had 730 five-star reviews removed by TripAdvisor shortly after we contacted it to point out that they looked suspicious.
Despite our findings, TripAdvisor continued to defend its methods and deny that Which? Travel’s methodology worked.
It said: ‘The analysis presented by Which? is based on a flawed understanding of fake review patterns and is reliant on too many assumptions, and too little data…We have an industry-leading team of fraud investigators who work tirelessly to protect the site from fake reviews. We are confident our approach works, and is one of the reasons we continue to retain the trust of many millions of consumers worldwide.’
Have you spotted a suspicious review online? Let us know about it at Which? Conversation.