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Phony Hotel Reviews


ABOVE: Some hotel reviews are less suspect than others. For example, a review of the Hotel Principe in Venice can only by written by someone who's booked a room at the hotel.

Can you trust 'user reviews' at,, and similar sites?

These days, many travelers rely on "user reviews" at megasites like and when selecting hotels.

In theory, this is a great idea. In practice, such review sites can be hijacked by hotels, advertising agencies, and Web marketing firms that post fake--and invariably positive--reviews under assumed member names. To put it more bluntly, paid shills are spamming "user review" sites to con unsuspecting travelers.

In his Practical Nomad Blog, travel journalist Ed Hasbrouck described a session at the 2006 PhoCusWright marketing conference:

"Elias Plishner, V.P. of the interactive division of the McCann-Erickson advertising agency, boasted that, 'We have an entire division in Singapore [where labor is cheaper than in the USA] devoted to seeding online forums and bulletin boards with targetted content' for our advertising clients. Worse, these people are paid to spend months, in between assignments, creating profiles and posting 'neutral' messages to establish a credible online persona and background from which to post their secretly-paid advertising messages, such as to promote a newly-released movie.

Hasbrouck went on to quote founder Sean Keener as saying angrily, "They're spamming me!" He described how VirtualTourist CEO J.R. Johnson asked: "How can I stop these guys? They're sabotaging our credibility. But what can I do?"

The Sunday Times of London posed a similar question--one that was more practical than rhetorical:

"How can you turn a one-star hostel into a top hotel overnight? Write fake reviews online."

And in a more recent New York Times article titled "In a Race to Out-Rave, 5-Star Web Reviews Go for $5," David Streitfeld described freelance opportunities for bottom-feeders:

"As online retailers increasingly depend on reviews as a tool, an industry of fibbers and promoters has sprung up to buy and sell raves for a pittance."

Separating truth from fiction

Are any user-written hotel reviews useful? Yes, if they're obtained from real guests. For example, (our secure hotel reservations partner) solicits rankings and reviews from guests who have stayed at a hotel. In theory, a hotel or its advertising agency could post a phony review by booking a room through Venere and paying for it; in real life, this would be too cumbersome and expensive to be practical.

Guidebook reviews (or reviews on editorial sites like this one) can also be helpful, assuming that you trust the author's judgment. Two caveats:

  • Any review will reflect the author's biases, at least to some degree.

  • A review describes what the writer experienced at one point in time.

The bottom line:

  • Reviews (whether written by past guests or guidebook authors) can be useful, but take gushingly positive reviews with a grain of salt. For that matter, be skeptical of hyperbolic negative reviews, too, because a guest who feels slighted or cheated for any reason isn't likely to be objective.