At the end of December, an anonymous Facebook user leaked an email onto the social network that made waves within the hospitality industry in Phnom Penh: it was a message from a marketing company offering 10 fake reviews on travel website TripAdvisor for $200.
“Getting reviews written for Trip Adviser [sic] to bulk up your views is a normal practice in the industry and whilst completely against the Trip Adviser Terms of Service it may well be how your competitors are getting many more reviews that you are,” it read.
The sender, Steve Vaile, chairman of the Cambodia-based Mad Monkey Hostels hospitality company, said on the phone this week that the email had been penned five years ago and remained unintentionally configured into an automated response system.
The service had never actually been implemented, he added, nor had Mad Monkey ever used fake reviews. “TripAdvisor is not a credible platform, period,” he said before hanging up.
Nonetheless, his email prompted an outcry on social media. “It’s not often people blatantly prove they have no morals and an idea of the value of things,” said one user.
TripAdvisor, the world’s largest travel website, can make or break a business with its user-generated content, but hospitality insiders fear that the site is prone to fraudulent reviews.
The UK’s Advertising Standard’s Authority ordered the company to stop implying in its British ads that all reviews were “honest, real or trusted”. Italy fined TripAdvisor €500,000 ($581,000) for presenting all its content as genuine.
The site, which features about 200 million user-generated reviews for 4.4 million businesses and attractions worldwide, can leave entrepreneurs either thriving or foundering – whether they want to be listed or not.
And in Phnom Penh, where 798 restaurants and 227 hotels are listed on TripAdvisor, businesses are particularly affected by the site due to its popularity with international travellers.
Anthony Galliano, the Phnom Penh-based chief executive of Dynamo Innovative Digital Advertising, said his digital media consultancy clients placed great value in high TripAdvisor rankings.
“Talking to our customers, there is a very deep concern about reviews on TripAdvisor because there is a direct correlation between the business they get and the rankings,” he said.
While TripAdvisor is largely reliable, he added, consumers must take the platform with a grain of salt.
“You sort of have to do that assessment – there’s a degree of positive and negative reviews that are probably not [genuine]. You have polluted reviews because of competition, and positive reviews because staff are encouraged to do reviews,” he said.
Phnom Penh restaurateurs, many of who suspect that cheating is commonplace in the Kingdom, frequently gripe about TripAdvisor.
Timothy Bruyn, owner of Common Tiger restaurant, said he had received two emails from companies in Vietnam and Singapore offering him paid TripAdvisor reviews from accounts based around the world.
“You’re getting a lot of people now, because of the importance placed on TripAdvisor by travellers, that are paying these people to push up reviews,” said Bruyn, adding that fake TripAdvisor reviews put honest entrepreneurs into a frustrating position.
Even genuine customers, said Bruyn, sometimes leave untruthful information that is difficult to have removed from the site. On one occasion, a woman gave an extremely negative review that slammed nonexistent menu options.
TripAdvisor relies mostly on algorithms to spot fakes, but the methodology is guarded as a trade secret, and some restaurateurs say they have been wrongly accused.
Peter Chai, owner of Phnom Penh’s Mok Mony restaurant, said he found himself falsely penalised for alleged fraud last August. Shortly after opening, his restaurant experienced an unexpected influx of business. When he asked these new customers how they found Mok Mony, they said it was because his business was ranked TripAdvisor’s number one restaurant in Phnom Penh.
Chai said he suspected the first few reviews, all of them positive, boosted his restaurant to first place as no negative reviews had yet to materialise.
His newfound success came to a halt when his rating dropped to 133rd after a couple weeks at the top. When he called TripAdvisor’s office in Singapore, he learned that his account was likely penalised for fraud. It was not until he called corporate headquarters in Boston that he was able to restore his restaurant’s good standing, though he was never told how he came to be penalised or why the company reversed its decision. Mok Mony ranked 9th out of 797 yesterday.
Jean Ow-yeong, senior media relations manager for TripAdvisor in Singapore, said the company’s philosophy was that the site’s visitors, which number about 300 million per month, collectively bring about fair evaluations.
“It’s the same as the principle used in polling – the bigger the sample, the better the results,” Ow-yeong said, adding that TripAdvisor “aggressively” fights fraud through automated tools and a team of more than 250 content reviewers.
But for restaurant owners like Chai, TripAdvisor continues to be a blessing and a curse. While the owner of Mok Mony credits TripAdvisor with putting a spotlight on small businesses that might otherwise be ignored, Chai said the site was a powerful force that must be kept in check. “It helps bring to the forefront little restaurants that are unknown, but the rigid code of investigation . . . if you don’t have the gumption or guts to fight them, they will stomp all over you,” he said.