Twitter Campaign Takes Aim at Fake Restaurant Reviews on TripAdvisor

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Tracy Mcveigh, The Guardian, October 26, 2015

A growing number of frustrated restaurateurs, food writers and diners, backed by Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner, are calling for TripAdvisor to put an end to fraudulent reviews.

A campaign, started on Twitter last week under #noreceiptnoreview is asking the website, which hosts over 250 million reviews of restaurants and hotels, to insist that users can only post a review if they provide a scanned receipt.

The growing unease over the validity of reviews on websites like TripAdvisor comes as evidence mounts that the system is being exploited by unscrupulous companies and individuals.

Last weekend Amazon announced that it would take legal action in the U.S. against more than 1,000 people who have been offering to write fake reviews for a fee. Days later came the allegation that an Australian holiday apartment company had bribed a customer to remove one negative review from TripAdvisor and was fudging the system to stop other reviews.

Rayner, and other supporters of #noreceiptnoreview, believe the inclusion of a receipt with a review would help restore trust in websites that rely on reviews for much of their traffic. “TripAdvisor have admitted they have a problem with fake reviews, and if you have a business model that functions on trust, then you need to do something to protect that,” said Rayner. “At the moment I only use TripAdvisor to get a list of places in a particular town I’m going to – I ignore the rankings.”

He said this lack of trust in web reviews was “a huge problem for the democracy of the web”.

The idea to give the campaign a Twitter hashtag came from Tom, a food inspector who, because of his job, remains anonymous but goes under the Twitter handle of @EaterWriter. “I started it because operators of good restaurants, pubs and other eateries – despite never having chosen to engage with TripAdvisor – see damage to their businesses by reviewers who have not visited them, or post exaggerated details of a visit,” he said.

“Ultimately, TripAdvisor must decide on a way to repair and maintain trust, and the receipt idea, while not perfect, is a step in the right direction.”

Andy Hayler, a restaurant critic and food writer, suggested the compromise idea that those with receipts could have a verification tick against their reviews. “The concern over fraudulent reviews is a major issue for restaurants,” he said. “Sites like TripAdvisor – and to a lesser extent others like Yelp, which is bigger in the US than here – have considerable influence in where people spend their money.” He pointed to a study by Harvard Business School which found a 1 point higher Yelp score caused a 5-9 percent increase in revenue for independent restaurants.

Having verification of TripAdvisor reviews would improve the situation, said Hayler. “The company could even adjust its scoring algorithm to count such reviews higher than unverified ones. Such a system would mean some cost to the company but as they already have the mechanism for accepting photos, it would not be an impossible task.”

Hayler acknowledged that the inclusion of a receipt would not solve the problem entirely. A cheating restaurant owner could issue false receipts to family members, for example. But, he said, it would raise the “difficulty bar” and at least make a dent in the false negative reviews of competitors.

A TripAdvisor spokesperson said the company is not in favour of the receipt idea. “We believe that every experience counts, not just that of the person who paid the bill. If four friends go out to dinner there will be four different opinions, but only the one person with the receipt would be able to leave a review.

She added that the company has “sophisticated systems and techniques and teams in place to detect fraudsters”, and strong penalties to deter them.

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This article was written by Tracy Mcveigh from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.