The advertisement for a Caribbean hotel touts “ocean view,” and there is—for guests who climb to a rooftop terrace and peer far into the distance. A restaurant website is replete with rave reviews that give no hint they were written by people who were paid for their positive ratings. The photograph shows people enjoying a nearly deserted beach that, in reality, is usually is packed with other sunbathers.
When it comes to making travel plans, whether you’re picking a destination, place to stay or eat, or handling other arrangements, it’s wise to keep in mind that tried-and-true adage, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
While the majority of travel-related ads and reviews are legitimate, a surprising number aren’t. Research by the University of Illinois and BestSEOCompanies.com, a firm that helps businesses select the best search engine optimization vendors, suggests that as many as 20 percent to 40 percent of online reviews are fake.
In fact, there’s an entire mini-industry consisting of so-called review farms that will—for pay—furnish positive write-ups and recommendations for companies, including some in the travel field.
A Google search makes clear how prevalent this practice is. Among sources that pop up are “How to Buy Reviews,” “Buy Positive Reviews Online,” and “Buy Bulk Reviews.”
This is important to know because many people depend upon reviews and advertisements in making travel, restaurant, and other decisions. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 40 percent of people “always” or “almost always” look at online reviews, and more than 80 percent do so at least “sometimes.”
One aspect of those evaluations is star ratings, which many people use as a guide in selecting hotels, restaurants, and other businesses that they assume have been given high grades by customers. While that’s true in most cases, it’s also true that some high-star ratings might be bogus.
Experts note that the more reviewers who have provided stars, the less likely it is that they have been manipulated. Myles Anderson, founder of the business marketing firm BrightLocal, says the more the merrier when it comes to the number of stars given to a business. He explains that it is harder and more costly to influence a rating when there’s a relatively large number of critics.
Written reviews can be even more important—and impactful—because they have the added influence of advice from people who have stayed at a hotel, dined at a restaurant, sailed on a cruise ship, or visited a destination. Or have they? Here are a few things to look out for.
Does the review use specific words? Many fake write-ups employ general words rather than specific descriptions. That can be a warning sign that they’re generic evaluations that were submitted by paid writers.
Is there a number of very short reviews? People who take the time to send an evaluation following a meal they actually ate or a trip they took usually wish to express themselves more fully.
Are there only highly praiseworthy postings? As Saoud Khalifah of Fakespot.com points out, “We all know nothing is ever picture perfect.” His company provides information useful in evaluating the reliability of online reviews on websites, including TripAdvisor.com and Yelp.com.
When it comes to spotting false or downright fake reviews that can trick travelers, the good news is that help is on the way. There are steps you can take to figure out what’s real and what’s not that can reduce the likelihood that you may be duped.
Use reputable sources of information. Here’s the advice of Andy Beal, CEO of Reputation Refinery, a reputation consulting company: “Focus on finding reviews from travel-related websites that you already trust will show authentic reviews and weed out as many fake reviews as possible. From there, focus on reading the three- and four-star reviews, as they will often point to the positives and negatives and are less likely to be a paid review.”
Diversify your search. Even if you have had a good experience using one travel website, check out others. The results might verify the information and opinions you already have, but it’s possible you may get some helpful details or opinions that will be useful.
Delve into the details. A restaurant may get a number of positive ratings because it serves good food, and a hotel might be praised for its comfortable rooms. However, there could be other factors that can detract from an otherwise pleasant experience. Do some restaurant diners refer to less-than-stellar service? Are public areas of a hotel run-down and in need of refurbishment?
Does it sound too good to be true? Most things in the real world are a mixture of good and not so good—or even bad. If a review is full of over-the-top praise, that could be a tipoff that it’s not real. Phrases such as “the best ever” or “absolutely fantastic” could have been written by someone who stayed at a hotel or dined at a restaurant. However, they also might be examples of the “buyer beware” syndrome that should prompt you to be a fully informed traveler and consumer.
When You Go
Refer to these tips when planning your next trip and check out the promises made in brochures and on websites before booking.
Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at Creators.com. Copyright 2021 Creators.com