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Calling time on our fake reviews culture

Opinions | Published:

What's in an opinion?

Everyone has got one, but sorting out the wheat from the chaff can be a tiresome chore when it comes to finding reliable information in the internet age.

We are bombarded with advice from hundreds of sources telling us how, where and on what to spend our hard-earned pennies, yet so much of it is tainted.

It is for that reason that sections of the hospitality industry are at loggerheads with TripAdvisor, the world's biggest online review site that compiles critiques of restaurants and hotels by members of the public.

Former Weston Park owner Lord Bradford has already said his piece, accusing the multi-billion pound internet giant of failing to investigate unfairly hostile or inaccurate reviews.

But for those looking for an alternative when it comes to reviews, TripExpert is aiming to provide a different type of service.

The site which focuses on bringing together the work of professional reviewers in a bid to provide a more informed choice for potential customers.

It was formed by Andrew Nicol and Emily Hughes, who say they wanted to provide an alternative to readers who like them, had become frustrated at the 'blatantly malicious' nature of some online reviews.

Emily had seen this first hand, having worked at New York's plush Gramercy Park Hotel.

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"She would notice guests would write reviews about things that never happened," Andrew told me over the phone from TripExpert's New York office.

"On occasion there would be guests trying to blackmail the hotel by threatening a bad review unless they got something for free.

"When you see this happening it can get very frustrating. These are problems that a lot of people who work in hotels or restaurants can relate to. We wanted to put something together that people could really trust."

According to Andrew, any website that allows people to rate a venue without checking the reliability of the review is 'too easy to corrupt'.

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"In such a system the potential for abuse is very high," he said.

"On one hand you have people who are deliberately posting negative reviews. This poses a reputational risk to hotels and restaurants that can be devastating.

"Of course there are reviews that are legitimate, but may not be particularly well informed. For example if you don't travel particularly often you have marginal experience of reviewing hotels.

"Where is your frame of reference?"

There have also been instances of hotels and restaurants allegedly bribing guests to place positive reviews, while a fair few companies have sprouted up offering glowing reviews at a cost.

TripExpert aims to put the 'expert' at the forefront of its work by aggregating reviews from more than 70 specialist publications.

For every hotel, restaurant and tourist attraction, the site displays a detailed review sourced from publications including Lonely Planet, Travel + Leisure, and Bon Appétit.

It also uses a scoring algorithm that takes into account how a venue has been reviewed by a variety of experts.

Recent features include a tapas tour of Madrid, a guide to the 10 best food festivals around the world, and advice on must-have travel accessories.

Andrew admits to swimming against the tide by using such an approach, particularly considering the popularity of crowd-sourced reviews with vast swathes of the public.

Although the hospitality industry may turn up its nose at TripAdvisor, the US based firm has grown rapidly since its inception and boasts revenue figures in excess of $1.5 billion.

For its part, TripAdvisor maintains that strict checking procedures are in place to detect any suspicious patterns in reviews.

A spokesman said the firm is 'the industry leader in review fraud detection', adding that it works tirelessly in an effort to stay 'one step ahead of the fraudsters'.

TripExpert is hardly reinventing the wheel, as resource sites based on professional reviews are nothing new.

Rotten Tomatoes method of rating films by gathering together professional reviews has been hugely successful.

But if we prefer to rely on those who are in the know when it comes to films and music, why do the same rules not apply for dining out and finding a place to stay?

"There is no doubt that people enjoy reading and hearing about other peoples experiences," Andrew said.

"We often look at crowd-sourced reviews and see them as our own voice. It is perceived as being like a friend giving us a piece of advice.

"But I think a growing number of people are cottoning on to the fact that it is often impossible to weed out the real reviews from the fake ones."

While TripAdvisor favours the side of the reviewer, TripExpert is aiming to give the places it rates a fairer crack of the whip.

And although it is still a million miles away from TripAdvisor in terms of user numbers, it provides a viable alternative for those looking for a more trustworthy opinion.

Pete Madeley

By Pete Madeley
@P_Madeley_Star

Political Editor for the Express & Star. Responsible for local and national political stories, opinion, comment and analysis.

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