Recently, an article published in eHotelier alleged that around 20% of online hotel customer reviews may be unreliable or fake, according to research conducted by Dr. Markus Schuckert and Professor Rob Law of the School of Hotel and Tourism Management (SHTM) at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
The article brings up a source of anxiety for many hoteliers, as today, online reputation is everything. When asked by TripAdvisor and Phocuswright, 93% of travelers said that online reviews impact their booking decisions. Additionally, a study by Cornell University found that a one-point increase in a hotel’s average user rating on a 5-point scale makes potential customers 13.5% more likely to book that hotel. It’s pretty clear that online reputation should be a critical objective for any business in the service industry (CLICK HERE to learn more about responding to reviews).
But the methodology and conclusions of the study seem to suffer from a fundamental misunderstanding of not only what review sites are doing to combat fake hotel customer reviews but the realities of the service industry as a whole.
We’d like to give a little context to the issue with some more in-depth information.
The major review sites work hard to protect against fake reviews
It is true that any hotel or restaurant can be the victim of fake reviews, particularly if they are negative. While rare, it can happen, whether it’s an unethical competitor or an individual who has decided to cause problems for a business.
Fortunately, most of the major review sites have software in place to protect against fake reviews. For example, a 2013 study by Harvard Business School found that roughly 16% of Yelp reviews are identified by the site’s software as fake and subsequently filtered by Yelp’s detection algorithm. TripAdvisor has a zero tolerance policy for fake reviews, and subjects every review to approximately 50 filters for integrity and moderation issues. Suspicious reviews are subject to moderation by one of a bank of 300 content specialists, many of whom have backgrounds in law enforcement, credit card fraud, and even forensic computing. Booking.com has a similar evaluation process in place with the added benefit that only guests who have booked and stayed at the hotel in question are invited to write a review. Consumers who haven’t booked and stayed at the hotel are not given a way to write a review at all.
The protection against fake reviews doesn’t just stop there. TripAdvisor tracks IP addresses and punishes businesses who are caught trying to write their own reviews. Last year, Yelp sued three companies attempting to profit by selling fake positive reviews to businesses.
Additionally, in the United States, the FTC considers fake reviews illegal, and there is legal precedent for businesses who have sued companies peddling fake reviews and won. In July 2009 a settled court case resulted in a $300,000 penalty for a company posting fake consumer reviews. So, it’s clear that some governments have taken an interest in protecting the accuracy of consumer information when it comes to online reviews.
Overall, it’s important to remember that review sites have a vested interest in protecting the integrity of online reviews. The success of these sites depends on consumer trust in the validity of the content, so it makes sense that they would be very strict with any potentially fake reviews. If consumers couldn’t trust the accuracy of the information on these sites, they wouldn’t use them to make purchase decisions.
Ratings gaps are normal and informative
The other aspect of this article that we take issue with is the identification of a ratings “gap” as indicative of potentially suspicious reviews.
On TripAdvisor, there is an overall rating and six specific ratings for service, value, sleep quality, cleanliness, location, and rooms. The researchers identified reviews with a ratings “gap” as those where the overall rating score and the average of the six specific ratings scores are different by 0.5 or greater. These reviews make up the 20% of reviews that researchers identified as “suspicious.”
Our question is why are the ratings with gaps considered suspicious? Why would a fake reviewer give a hotel a high overall rating, yet give lower ratings on the specific categories?
If anything from what we’ve seen, some gaps between the overall rating and the specific categories are very normal, especially when you take into account the star rating of the hotel.
For example, if you look at the ratings for luxury properties, it is very common for categories like cleanliness and service to be much higher than the overall rating. It’s also normal to see lower ratings for value because the price of four-star hotels tends to be very high.
On the flip side, lower-star properties will have different natural discrepancies between overall and specific categories ratings. For a hostel, for example, it would be completely normal and expected for the rooms rating to be lower than the overall rating, as a hostel supplies dormitory-style rooms that are intended to be price-efficient and not luxurious or high-end. Or one could expect the value rating to be much higher than the overall rating since hostels are typically much lower in price than four or five-star hotels.
Additionally, those gaps in specific categories are great information for hotels. It’s one way to get more specific data from guest feedback, which makes it easier to pinpoint areas of the hotel’s operation that could benefit from improvement.
The simplest explanation
Overall, in the spirit of Occam’s razor, reviews with a ratings gap between the overall rating and the average ratings of the six specific categories can be explained simply: the reviewer wouldn’t rate his overall experience with the hotel poorly, but perhaps he had some quibbles with the details of his stay that brought down the average score of his six specific ratings.
Think about it. If you had a pretty good time during your stay with a hotel, but not everything was perfect, would you give it a bad overall rating?
Time and time again, in multiple consumer surveys like this one and this one, the results are the same – the top motivation for consumers to write online reviews is to help others make better purchasing decisions. The population of reviewers as a whole typically shares because people want to be helpful.
For example, Bazaarvoice asked consumers why they write online reviews. 90% of respondents said they write online reviews “to help other consumers make good decisions”:
The idea that rating behavior might be “perfunctory” (as described in the eHotelier article) doesn’t make any sense. Neither does the hypothesis that reviews with a ratings gap are created to deceive or manipulate consumers.
Review sites are good for hotels
In summary, review sites are actively working to prevent fake reviews and have processes in place to protect businesses against them. The bigger sites have also gone so far as to punish and even prosecute businesses and individuals caught cheating.
As far as reviews with a ratings gap between overall and specific category ratings, hoteliers shouldn’t view these as suspicious, but as helpful sources of information. These gaps can help operations teams identify the specific areas for improvement that will have the maximum impact on the hotel’s guest experience.