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As the Daily Mail reported this morning, TripAdvisor has changed its tagline from 'reviews you can trust' to focus more on the community aspect of the site, showing instead, items that 'travellers recommend.'
TripAdvisor has recently come under scrutiny by the ASA over allegations that between 5 and 10 million reviews on the site are either fake or misleading.
Well colour me surprised - I would have thought that every review on TripAdvisor was scrutinised with care and attention, just like every other online review - and that nobody would ever try to game a review site to their own benefit.
Why review sites don't care if their content is faked
It is to the advantage of review sites to allow anything that won't get them sued for libel to remain on their sites because search engines reward sites for having lots of unique content.
Up until recently, there has been no reason for review sites not to ignore blatantly fake reviews, reviews which obviously come from competitors, reviews which are put up by someone who merely has a particular axe to grind, and, frankly, to add their own faked reviews because nobody could do anything about it - and having all that content helped them to rank well for a variety of terms, get loads of visitors on site and bring in more and more revenue.
If the moderators and, folk responsible for the site content at Trip Advisor, and, well, every other review site everywhere in the world, aren't fully aware of the level of faked crap that goes onto their sites, then I'll eat my shoes - because I know full well that when I was working as a moderator at a very well known review site we were extremely aware of it, and we only stopped it in the most blatant instances (or where we could get into trouble with someone's solicitors).
In fact, as I've mentioned on here before, we used to get instructed to write fake reviews ourselves in order to get our pages ranking for search terms relating to popular products, or products that had ads running on them with good CPC values. It was all about those clicks on ads (or the numbers of times the CPM ads were showing) - because it was all about the money, not the quality of the content. So if we could make a product look really great then visitors were more likely to click on an ad, which means we made money from it. This practice was a sore point with me from the day I started work there til the day I left, and it's the reason I never trust any online reviews unless there's at least 10 or 12 that are clearly unique all offering roughly the same sentiment.
Web users should always read critically
Frankly, I'd have thought that web users were savvy enough these days to understand that they should take all user generated content with a pinch of salt - and to never take the word of just one or 2 reviewers.
While I would never accuse Trip Advisor or any other review site of deliberately misleading people where it could cause them harm, I also know it's to their advantage to both ignore negative reviews written either by competitors or by very unreasonable customers determined to cause damage and reviews blatantly written by marketers as the content helps encourage other, real content, and the content helps boost search results - and can bring in revenue through increased ad displays where visitors go on to try and find a better alternative and through clicks on ads when visitors find what they're looking for and go on to buy.
Certainly any regulations which discourage businesses from trying to fake their own reviews and encourage review sites to moderate reviews more closely is a good thing for consumers - however it's also up to consumers to exercise a bit of common sense. Knowing how fickle people can be, and seeing that on average most shops only ever rate around a 5/10, and hotels always come in on the low side too, certainly consumers should be clever enough to know that a shop that rates a 6/10 or a hotel that rates a 7/10 are probably pretty safe bets and that they should always pay close attention to the nature of the gripes - would you really not book a room at a hotel in Spain because 6 out of 10 people rated it a 1 because they serve a traditional Spanish breakfast instead of a full English? You think this is far-fetched? It's not - I've seen it happen. Repeatedly.
So, what do I really think about TripAdvisor changing their tagline? I think it's about time they acknowledged what they've probably known for years - that you can't really trust individual reviews, but that the overall opinion of their community is helpful to consumers, and worth encouraging.