Australian Hotel Group Fined $3 Million For Manipulating TripAdvisor Reviews

Last week I wrote about my conundrum with receiving daily requests to leave reviews for every single thing I purchase online. I noted that when I first started travelling I would leave TripAdvisor reviews for every single restaurant, hotel and experience, but now that I travel so regularly, I just can’t be bothered.

Well today comes the news that Meriton Property Services has been found guilty of manipulating TripAdvisor reviews. Meriton is one of Australia’s largest property developers and serviced apartment providers. You may have seen the Meriton Suites Sydney Airport property when travelling through Sydney.

They specialise in renting more than 3,000 suites and apartments, rather than just standard hotel rooms, especially in New South Wales and Queensland.

The Federal Court of Australia found that during 2014 and 2015, Meriton engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct to block potentially negative reviews on the worldwide review website TripAdvisor.

‘Masking’ negative reviews

As I understand it, hotels and other accommodation providers can provide a list of guest email addresses to TripAdvisor, to ensure that only those people who have actually stayed at their properties can leave reviews, which maximizes the odds of the reviews being genuine.

What Meriton did was where they suspected any particular guest had a poor experience (and therefore may submit a negative review), they would submit the incorrect email address to TripAdvisor using a process called ‘masking.’ Meriton staff would add the letters ‘MAS’ (which stood for Meriton Serviced Apartments) to the front of those email addresses, so [email protected] would become [email protected]

TripAdvisor may then receive a negative review from [email protected] in relation to a Meriton property, but would not publish it because it did not match the [email protected] address that Meriton had submitted, and therefore TripAdvisor did not believe that reviewer had stayed at the property.

Meriton also did not provide some customer email addresses to TripAdvisor at all where they feared those customers may leave negative reviews.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commissioner, Sarah Court welcomed the AUD$3,000,000 fine, saying of the decision:

“People often make purchasing decisions for accommodation based on the rankings and reviews they read on third party sites like TripAdvisor. Manipulating these reviews is misleading to potential customers, who deserve the full picture when making a booking decision.”

My experience with fake reviews

Occasionally business owners will leave their own fake reviews, although this is often caught, especially if they are not sophisticated in doing it. I went to a horrendous tourist trap restaurant next to Pompeii in Italy last year, which was so bad I felt the need to leave a TripAdvisor review. I was on an all day group tour of the region, and was not given any choice of where to eat but wanted to warn anyone who may have a choice. Most people only visit Pompeii once.

When I looked up the restaurant, I was surprised to see if was rated 3 stars (out of five). But then I noticed when I looked further that almost every review was either 1 star or 5 stars which seemed odd. All the 1 star reviews were the exact same experience as mine – mentioning the terrible food and miserable, rude staff. But then all the five star reviews were almost word for word identical all saying ‘amazing service by waiter Claudio and Alfonso.’

Given the miserable waiters did not wear name tags, and certainly didn’t go as far as introducing themselves I found it comical that so many ‘real’ customers would mention exactly the same thing. It was clear the owner (or perhaps Claudio and Alfonso himself) was leaving fake reviews, to try and counteract all the genuine one star reviews.

They could have at least tried to mix them up to make them sound more believable!

Bottom line

It was very bold for a huge company like Meriton to think it could get away with manipulating bad reviews, rather than trying to improve the problems in its properties that led to the negative customer experiences in the first place.

In this age of ‘fake news’ I welcome the decision and penalty. Even if I’m not leaving my own reviews every time, I recognise the importance of them and how much they help prospective customers.

Have you ever come across fake reviews on review websites?

Comments

  1. I ate at a pretty terrible restaurant by Pompeii and also felt the need to leave a TripAdvisor review. Wonder if it was the same one!

  2. I just stayed at the M Gallery in Auckland and it was super loud from the noise on Queens Street. When I checked out I mentioned this as they asked me how my stay was, they said that they had put me on a higher floor to avoid the noise.

    Curious as to whether other people had the same experience as me I looked on TripAdvisor and saw that there were three new 5 star reviews posted within minutes of me checking out saying how wonderful the hotel was and that they requested a higher floor to avoid the noise from Queens Street and couldn’t hear a thing…

  3. I’m pretty sure most people use their “junk email” account for tripadvisor and “quasi junk email” account to receive reservation email. That is a horrible way to match if the reviewer actually stayed at the hotel. It is like using excel to do high volume accounting for your business…

  4. There should be criminal charges against the persons. This is willful fraud.

    Amazing how white collar crimes get leniency and immigration crimes gets you put in the jail.

  5. I think situations like this have grown so common, I honestly ignore the final star rating. I read the 5-star reviews, the 1-star reviews, and a few in between, and then make a judgement on whether it sounds like bad reviews were one-off experiences or if fake reviews are tipping the balance. (Hint: 2 and 4-star reviews are much more likely to be genuine)

  6. Sorry, but this one is on trip advisor. If they consistently get emails with a particular pattern from a hotel chain, they are stupid for not noticing it and do something about it. They must be in on it too. I hope they get fined. Crap like this would never happen in America.

  7. It may be that James and Co. are not aware (given the previous post about why leave reviews) that the Tripadvisor algorithm for where in their search results a company’s product is displayed depends very heavily on number of reviews, a change they made about 3 or 4 years ago. That is, a hotel or tour or restaurant with 10,000 reviews will come up much sooner, and thus be seen by more eyes, than one with a 1000 or 100. So now the frantic requests for reviews we all receive.

  8. Has anyone else noticed how hard it is recently to actually post a review on TA these days? The site seems so heavily geared towards their (terrible) booking service, that by the time I log in and wander through the maze of ads and booking pitches, I’m too frustrated to leave a review. For me, TA was the last bastion of semi-legit reviews. Now I give it as much stock as Yelp – which is basically 0.

  9. Hardly surprising given who owns it. Barely a flea bite on the butt of an elephant in the context of Sydney property development practices.

  10. @ Jackie – I agree, and am surprised that Meriton were as lazy as ‘just add MAS to the front of every email address we don’t like’, thinking that wouldn’t raise suspicion. They could have instructed staff to add either an M, an A, or an S somewhere in the email address to mask it.
    At the same time, Trip Advisor would be sent and receive hundreds of thousands of email addresses so it would be difficult to detect abnormality patterns (although they may have here and that may have been why Meriton were caught).

  11. Rather naive. Fake TA reviews are very very common, and many big name properties do it. The warning sign is the one review reviewer. If a property has a bunch of one review reviewers leaving five star reviews, they’re faking reviews.

  12. Jackie,

    Americans are idiots. Self righteous, over confident, assholish at a visceral level idiots.

    I have always said there was no difference between america and Russia. Now someone that matters also agrees:

    ttps://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/jimmy-carter-u-s-is-an-oligarchy-with-unlimited-political-bribery-63262/

    Lock him up
    Eff Republicans

  13. I have actually stayed at Meriton in Sydney a few years back and it was quite good though I didn’t leave any reviews

  14. The worst that I have found is the Sheraton Framingham’s reviews on SPG.com. Literally dozens of positive reviews by the same user over and over to offset the negative reviews from guests.

  15. The problem with hotel and product reviews in general, is that people often only post one to vent after a bad experience. I spend around 120 days a year in hotels and I rarely leave a review because I spend most of that time at places I regularly frequent. When booking at a new place, I scan the one star reviews and look for recurring themes, like cleanliness, noise and WiFi – any of those are deal breakers for me. If it’s just some issue like a rude employee or a breakfast problem, I normally dismiss it.

    I often find bad reviews on places that I normally use and wonder how those guests could have such bad experiences when I consistently have excellent stays. It makes me wonder if the competition is posting bad reviews on their competitors. As for the lack of negative reviews and abundance of great reviews on places that I find poor, it’s been rare. When it’s happened, I’ve gone back and read the reviews after my stay, I’ve noticed that many of the excellent reviews seemed boiler plate.

  16. TA still does serve a purpose despite all of the noise. I spend time reading the actual text of the review more than looking at the star rating. And I try to identify patterns in recent reviews. If several people mention the same problem then it probably is an issue. But you can also tell who is a reasonable person and who is unreasonable. Short reviews that are nothing but praise are generally not helpful and I usually dismiss them. I tend to write pretty detailed reviews pointing out the good and the bad to have some balance.

  17. I had a similar experience with the hotel in London that conveniently is always rated #1 or close to #1 in London. My wife and I lived in the area and went into the hotel bar for a drink after a Christmas concert with some friends. Despite the bar being open for another couple hours, we were told in a not so subtle way that we weren’t welcome (despite being nicely dressed and the fact that there were many open tables). I left a negative Tripadvisor review for the hotel since the bar didn’t have a separate review option on Tripadvisor, noting that the review was because of the experience I had at the lobby bar. The hotel challenged my review saying that I couldn’t review since I didn’t stay at the hotel, and that I should have reviewed the restaurant instead (which was entirely separate from the lobby bar I reviewed) and eventually got it taken off of Tripadvisor. Became clear to me that the chain the hotel is a part of manipulates its reviews as much as it can, as I’ve stayed in a few of their properties and they did not come close to matching other similarly ranked properties I have also stayed at. Lesson learned – read a good sample of reviews on Tripadvisor and never totally rely on the ranking.

  18. After decades on the road I rarely get duped.
    I know most of the hotels in major cities around the world and have great relationships
    and top tier status which also helps of course.A phony review is pretty easy to spot IMHO
    When in doubt cross reference with another site
    Trip Advisor unfortunately is as guilty as the hotel chain for manipulating numerous reviews
    TripAdvisor frequently censors and rejects reviews with either strong criticism or sensational serious events where someone has been harmed.
    There has been press about robberies ,rapes or having drinks spiked in Mexico to find out the hotel employees were getting a cut of profits from the ambulance as well as the hospital guests patients were taken too to have their stomachs pumped and refusing to publish reviews
    Tripadvisor owners have almost completely ruined the site by aggressively selling rooms and protecting their partner revenue stream by keeping hotel ratings artificially inflated
    The original ownership of TA was brilliant and ran the site with integrity,reasonable truth and full transparency

  19. I like TripAdvisor and rely on it for guidance on property choices…but I don’t trust any reviews submitted by people with fewer than 20-25 total reviews. I also check to see what other properties a reviewer has stayed at, and ignore those reviewers who don’t stay most often at the type of (most often, but not always, luxury hotels) I ordinarily frequent or am considering. I also ignore reviews from anyone who has 1-5 hotel reviews burgeoned by 20 “attraction” reviews.

    Once you filte out those useless/suspect reviews, the reviews often are quite useful. To be sure. I typically and randomly send private messages asking about the quality of air con or other details to the 5-10 reviewers whose reviews seem most cogent to me. If I don’t get any response, I ignore the review. I almost always get 100% responses. So I assume my approach effectively rules out most fake reviews.

  20. I’m surprised TA allows this at all. I routinely use different email addresses for bookings and for online reviews. Trying to match an email address would result in failure.

    I’ve also found that TA won’t notify you if they do remove your review. I once reviewed a hotel and noted that all of the other reviews were obviously fake. The hotel complained and got my review removed. I only noticed because I went back to see if they responded.

  21. Wouldn’t it have been easier and less detectable to just not send TA the emails of dissatisfied customers? Who would know?

  22. I love the bit about “Claudio and Alfonso”. The hair on the back of my neck goes up when TripAdvisor (or Yelp) reviews say glowing things about a particular person. It just doesn’t sound right to me. I’ve noticed that in reviews like that, the core service (hotel room, restaurant) generally gets one big adjective, like “fantastic” or “awesome”. Maybe Claudio’s girlfriend is trying to get him a raise?

  23. TA has been useless for the longest time in terms of overall ratings, although it’s still useful for reading through individual reviews to see what issues may occur and finding some helpful tips to get the most out of a stay.

    Far more useful for me is Google Maps reviews (especially for restaurants and bars). Since nobody pays attention to them, nobody bothers to game them (remember the early days of Yelp, when it wasn’t entirely useless). Also, I notice that a much higher percentage of Google reviews tend to come from locals in comparison to TA.

  24. I’m not sure I believe that the email address makes a difference. How do they know the email address used by a guest to book is the same as the one used for Tripadvisor? What I do know from personal experience of Meriton is that their properties have lots of Tripadvisor reviews, but they actively solicit reviews only from guests who had a good stay. I had a Meriton stay in Brisbane, where the apartment had several problems which they failed to resolve to my satisfaction (they asked me at checkout, and I told them so), and I was not asked to review, despite the property having loads of Tripadvisor reviews each day (but I did write a review anyway). A later stay at a Meriton in Sydney was great (they asked me at checkout, and I told them so), and so I was asked if I could please write a review! That is one way they game the system.

  25. I read the reviews by sampling them (I am a biostatistician), then figuring out why someone had a bad stay (are there common complaints). If I see a highly skewed distribution it is usually a tip off that the numbers have been monkeyed with.

  26. You get fake reviews all the time. I mean, there’s that perception with things like Uber, that anything less than a five-star rating is a fail. This makes the whole rating thing useless – shouldn’t a four-star rating be for “very good, but not the best ever” and a three-star as “adequate, but some room for improvement”?

    The worst I have had is when I have left a negative review of a hotel, only to have it deleted because “it’s unfair” when everything I said was true – and upon checkout staff accepted this as such! Another person commented a similar experience after mentioning bed bugs in an Air BnB review.

  27. “Crap like this would never happen in America.”

    No, just Lehman, the Exon Valdez, Deepwater, Charles Ponzi, Enron and Madoff.

  28. @James as a hotelier a couple of things I think it is important to clarify.
    Firstly, these actions taken by Meriton were mostly back in 2014. TripAdvisor, both in their website design and interface, and also the company’s direction with the website was quite different four years ago. As a few contributors above mentioned, TA is now wholly focused becoming a reseller of rooms, and attempts to generate revenue through doing so. As a result, they now focus more on their relationships with hotels and encourage the hotels to pay fees for “premium subscriptions” to enhance the TA experience both for them and for their potential guests. Although the hotel never is informed of the algorithm process, I have long suspected that paying a subscription fee to TA does have a positive algorithm impact. You will also note that the default sort listing for hotels now on TA is not from the best to worst rated, but “best value”. The hotel that TA considers to be the “best value” is the one that pays them for that top spot and they actively advertise to hotels that this will mislead potential guests into thinking they are number 1 on the site.

    Are there fake TA reviews on the site? Absolutely. Are they mostly legitimate though? Yes. Based on my personal experience as a hotelier they are. We do get obviously fake reviews from time to time, as we know our guests quite well and have a strong understanding of our stay experience, so when a review indicates that something happened that was essentially impossible, we suspect it is fake. But this would be about 1% overall.

    Like most hotels we actively seek out TA reviews from our guests in a post-stay email, and we do take this feedback seriously. We have a whole software system that monitors and tracks the guest experience through all the review sites, and gives us metrics to base capital expenditure and service improvement exercises on so we can actively improve the guest experience. This software also identifies potentially “fake” reviews and gives us an easy way to engage with reviewers post-stay should we want to clarify, thank or apologise.

    As a frequent traveler also, I must however confess I rarely use TA for when I am checking on potential hotels to stay in. I usually prefer to check reviews through travel booking sites like Booking.com wherein the reviewer *must* have actually stayed on-property to be given the capacity to write the review. Therefore I am more confident of a review written on that channel than I am in a TA one.

    Keep up the good work OMAAT!

  29. Wow, those inept sods at the ACCC actually did something useful.

    It’s a rarity – they’re directly responsible for internet connectivity in Australia being a decade behind the rest of Asia and should all be dismissed for gross ineptitude.

  30. @Jackie
    The most distinctive thing about a significant proportion of Americans is not how good or bad they are or their country is, but how naive they are in believing that their country is free of many worldwide problems.
    “Salesmanship” (also known as “distorting facts to achieve sales”) happens to some extent in all countries, and its prevalence varies by sector.
    I would say that it is most common in many poor countries, particularly where petty bribery is endemic – India being a good example.
    But of rich countries, “salesmanship” is most common in the USA, with Australia second.
    That doesn’t mean that there aren’t many other things at which USA is excellent.

  31. I have been telling friends for ages to be careful of Trip Advisor hotel reviews .
    I only use Booking.com and reviews can only be made after you stay there , so you have a better chance of ready honest reviews .
    Some restaurant reviews are also suspect .

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