Apr 04

The murky world of online hotel reviews

Not all online reviews of hotels and restaurants can be trusted — some gushing ones are written by the hotels or their representatives, some critical ones by rivals. Indeed, the hotel industry is up in arms over them. Prasun Chaudhuriand Sharmistha Ghosal on the online review rumpus.

Every now and then, just for a kick, Sanjeev Patra logs on to some hate mail. The critical – even abusive – comments posted by customers in online hotel review sites never fail to surprise him. “Clean and Neat. But everything is a trouble (sic),” one commentator writes.

Patra is the managing director of Sandy’s Tower, a luxury hotel in Bhubaneswar. He’s also a user of consumer review and travel sites, such as TripAdvisor, Goibibo, Agora, Zomato and Travelguru – all of which seek to help users assess properties and restaurants. “The pettiness of some of the complaints simply blows my mind,” he says. The comments range from “the mobile phone reception was patchy in the lobby” to “hot water taps in the toilet spewed scalding hot water”.

Across India, Internet users are logging on to sites that help them decide where to go for a holiday, where to put up, what restaurants to visit and what to eat. In most cases, the decisions are based on what reviewers have had to say about the place. But increasingly, questions are being asked about how authentic the comments are.

The buzz in the hospitality industry goes that just as some of the critical remarks are manufactured by rival groups, some of the gushing accounts about a particular property can be the handiwork of its owners.

“There is certainly some foul play in the review system,” maintains Tejinder Singh Walia, vice-president, Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Association of India. At its annual convention in Bhubaneswar a few months ago, heads of top review sites faced some “tough questions” from members, he says. “They expressed anger and frustration at some offensive reviews posted on the sites.”

The accusations cannot be confirmed – no one will admit to any under-the-table dealings – but Walia hints that some review sites can be “manipulating comments in exchange for commercial gains”.

Hotelier and restaurateur Sudesh Poddar is among those suspicious of the sites. His Calcutta restaurants Manthan and Song Hai and the luxury hotel, Hotel Nataraj, in Dibrugarh, Assam, are not mentioned in many of the sites, complains Poddar, president, Hotel and Restaurant Association of Eastern India.

And it’s not just the owners or managers who are crying foul. Travellers are complaining, too.

Last month, Calcutta teacher Seema Kundu booked a room at a seaside resort at Tajpur, West Bengal, after reading a spate of glowing reviews. But when she checked in, she found that the resort was anything but “cute”, “great”, “cozy” and “breezy” and was tucked away somewhere far from the sea.

“There was no security. The pictures of the cottages on the site did not match with the tiny huts there. And the food was horrible,” she says.

Tourist Tara Chandra, who stayed in a hotel in Bodh Gaya and found that it did not match up to the descriptions on a travel site, believes that reviews are being manufactured to attract customers. She found that all the positive reviews about the hotel were from the manager’s email account, though with different names.

“I suspect that the owners or the managers are posting the reviews from fake profiles as the adjectives used in many reviews are the same,” Chandra says.

In recent months, fake reviews have snowballed into controversies in many parts of the world. A Twitter campaign was started in Britain in October to force a popular website to put a scanned copy of a receipt next to a review to demonstrate that the reviewer had indeed stayed in the property or eaten at the restaurant being reviewed. There was also an outcry over reports that a holiday apartment company in Australia had tried to pay a bribe to get a negative review removed from a site.

Clearly, with the growing role of the online sites – whose praise or criticism is taken as gospel truth by many users and can break or make an enterprise – allegations of money exchanging hands for a glowing or a damaging review are on the rise.

The reasons are varied. Industry experts say that a promoter may want to pay money for a positive review of his or her property, or a particularly scathing one to bring a rival down.

“They either put their own people to write positive reviews or hire agencies to trash rivals and glorify their own products and services,” says Kapil Gupta, head, OMLogic, a social media consultancy firm.

Sometimes, reviewers could be damaging a place for their own reasons – greed, hatred, petty jealousy and so on.

“Last year, someone posted a terrible review of my eatery,” recounts Joymalya Banerjee, owner of Bohemian in Calcutta. “I discovered that it was the handiwork of an old friend with whom I had fallen out. He just wanted to ruin my reputation,” Banerjee says.

Deepak Mavinkurve, who runs Repufact, which analyses customer reviews and ratings across the Internet for over 550 hotels in India, cites an instance when a celebrity demanded an unreasonable discount from a Mumbai restaurant. “He threatened to defame the eatery through an unfavourable review on his massively popular Twitter handle in an effort to extract the discount,” Mavinkurve says.

Repufact has noticed fake reviews and “some chaos” around the system, especially in sites that allow unverified posts from anonymous reviewers, he says. “There is always a chance that some people might write a fake or bad review to extract something from a hotel or a restaurant,” adds Ishaan Ahuja, managing director, RepIndia, a digital marketing firm based in New Delhi.

But can a site which doesn’t want to be used by people with ulterior motives stop the fake reviews from coming in? Cybersecurity expert Rakshit Tandon doesn’t believe so. “Even sites such as Facebook have not been able to device systems to screen such offensive posts. The only option for the victim is to file a defamation suit,” Tandon says.

What an owner or manager can do, however, is monitor their sites. Not surprisingly, a new breed of professionals has come up to ensure that the image of a business group is not sullied by unfavourable comments online. Online reputation managers (ORM) purge negative posts or visuals, bury unfavourable search results and monitor a client’s virtual image 24/7.

“The best thing a hotel can do is actively monitor its reviews using online reputation management software,” holds Diana Helander, senior director, Revinate, a San Francisco-based technology company that helps small hotels track their online reputation. “If you are not actively tracking your online reputation and leveraging feedback from guests to improve your service, you lose your business,” warns R.J. Friedlander, CEO, ReviewPro, a Spain-based ORM company.

But many of the sites do not buy the argument that reviews are being manufactured. “We fight fraud aggressively and have sophisticated systems and teams in place to detect fraudsters, as well as impose strong penalties to deter them,” says Nikhil Ganju, country head, TripAdvisor, a leading travel website company that provides reviews of travel-related content. He stresses that every single review in the site is handled by 300 content specialists to maintain the quality of reviews.

The sites also have their own system of checks. Faasos, a food delivery app, says it investigates every review and gets in touch with the reviewer. “If a review is not genuine, it often turns out that the reviewer is not that keen to resolve his or her issue or complaint,” says Faasos co-founder Kallol Banerjee.

Travel booking website Goibibo asks customers to post pictures of the rooms they have stayed in along with reviews to ensure transparency. “We also have a question and answer platform where customers and hotel owners exchange notes to make things clear,” says Ashish Kashyap, founder and head, Goibibo. TripAdvisor also allows hoteliers to respond to reviews.

Some people in the business believe that the industry is panicking because it’s being subjected to people’s reviews for the first time. Faisal Farooqui, founder of Mouthshut.com, a consumer and feedback site, vehemently opposes Walia’s views that review sites “generate revenue from manipulated reviews” and holds that hoteliers are over-reacting because review sites have been forcing the hospitality sector to pull up its socks.

“A small fraction of customers may be too demanding but there’s no denying that most hotels and restaurants have been non-caring,” he says. His site has faced defamation suits but not been found guilty. As a result, he says he has not removed negative reviews from his site. “I tell brands that complain – come let’s fight it over in a court of law,” he says.

Like Farooqui, the heads of other review sites believe that they are not just helping the hospitality sector improve its service but providing it with free marketing. The sites have also ushered in consumer empowerment among the people, he says.

Travellers such as Kundu and Chandra are not so sure. Chandra says she’d rather listen to her instincts than get influenced by the opinion of a crowd. After all, that’s what people did in prehistoric times – those days before the Internet.

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