This morning, NBC’s Jeff Rossen was on the Today Show, reporting on how hotels and resorts around the world routinely engage in deceptive advertising. The segment concentrates on two different shady practices: hotels misrepresenting themselves on their own web sites, and hotels posting fake reviews of their properties on travel sites like TripAdvisor.com—sites used by millions of people to decide where to spend billions of travel dollars.
Rossen’s research took him from the Caribbean to Costa Rica, where he zeroed in on La Mariposa Hotel in Manuel Antonio. Comparing the photo of the “full ocean view” room on the hotel’s web site (at $290/night) with the actual room, he found that the real-life room had walls where the room in the photo had windows, making for a not-so-full ocean view.
There’s no doubt that this practice—manipulating and exaggerating reality to get customers in the door—is not uncommon, in Costa Rica and elsewhere. In fact it’s kind of shame to call out La Mariposa, since I’m sure there are hotels just down the road doing the same or worse.
Even more common, and perhaps even more misleading, is the posting of fake reviews on sites like TripAdvisor.com.
“Faking reviews is so mainstream now,” says Rossen, “that hotels can actually hire ad agencies to do the dirty work for them.” Consumer travel expert Edward Hasbrouck, interviewed on the segment, said he’d been at a travel conference where “one of the biggest ad agencies told the audience that they had an entire division—in a third-world country, where labor is cheap—prepared to start posting positive reviews.”
The fakery isn’t confined to rave reviews—it also includes panning the competition. Rossen interviews the former owner of a restaurant in Costa Rica, who admits not only to posting fake positive reviews of his own place but also to posting reviews trashing his competitors. He’d write of places he’d never been: “Eat at this dive at your own risk. It was the skankiest, most disgusting place I’d ever been.”
Is posting fake reviews illegal? Most definitely. But it’s notoriously hard to catch and even harder to prosecute. The Federal Trade Commission, who has the unenviable task of policing the internet, has never busted anyone for the practice.
So what’s a web-surfing vacation planner to do? I don’t see people abandoning sites like TripAdvisor any time soon. Even experienced travel writers will admit to scanning reviews—especially the mixed ones, that praise the place in general but have some very specific things to say about how the experience might be improved, suggestions no hotel manager would want to see in print.
In other words, head for the middle ground. Rossen advises travelers to ignore the reviews that rave or rage, then see what’s left. Edward Hasbrouck concurs: “If there are only a few reviews of a place, assume that there is a good chance they’ve been planted by friends or foes. If there are many reviews, act like a statistician, and start by dropping the outliers.”
Screenshot from NBC’s Today Show.