On “verified” hotel reviews

A thread over on my favourite travel news site Tnooz is (once again) discussing the ins and outs and debating the value of having a system of verified guest reviews. Given guest reviews are a small part of Travelfish.org I thought I’d go over a couple of the reasons I think the whole topic is a bit of a waste of time.

The wheelbarrow is being driven primarily by hotels who feel they’re being badly done over fake negative reviews (oddly nobody seems nearly as bothered by fake positive reviews). It seems SOMETHING MUST BE DONE.

The basic premise is that in order for a guest (or potential guest — more on this later) to submit a review they need to supply proof of stay to whatever review site they’re submitting a review to. In doing this one could argue that the review is based on a real stay.

A few problems lie with this approach, a handful of which I’ve outlined below.

Problem 1
It disenfranchises any small, family-run guesthouse that doesn’t have the technology infrastructure to be able to verify a stay.

Result 1
I’d wager at least a third to a half of the places I have stayed at in Southeast Asia have not even offered a receipt. Many of these do not have a fax, email or website. Some (admittedly very few nowadays) don’t even have a telephone number. This forces small businesses to face considerable costs to get “verifiable”, or, far more likely, cements the influence of the larger, corporate hotels who can.

Problem 2
A number of hostel booking platforms take their cut up front and the balance is paid on checkin/checkout with no interaction with the online travel agent.

Result 2
A dodgy hostel needs only make fake bookings across a range of IPs and emails and pay the deposit in order to plant an amazingly positive review into the system. Where dorms are going for just a few dollars a night, this becomes a cheap way to push up your score.

Problem 3
A verified fake stay

Result 3
You own a guesthouse in Hanoi. You want to put the place across the road out of business. You pony up the $20 and get your Crazy Aunt to book a stay. After the stay, she submits a review. The review is a load of hot cobblers, but rather than being a full rant, is just enough to worry people. Mention a few bedbug bites that you think you got there, the smelly toilet, the traffc noise, the pubic hairs on the pillow case and the used condom you found on the floor. Crazy Aunt took photos of the pubes and condom (planted of course), so now she has PROOF and the review is VERIFIED. Now post to TripAdvisor, with pics. In three weeks, repeat with Crazy Uncle, a month later, Crazy Neighbour. (As someone who deals on a daily basis with crafty Vietnamese travel agents, this is not a sophisticated ruse as it might sound — trust me.)

Problem 4
No stay? No review.

Result 4
Hotels appear to be aghast at the concept that one shouldn’t be allowed to review a hotel unless they stay there. I disagree. Some places are so awful there is nothing to do but turn around and walk out. By banning this style of review you’re letting the very worst offenders off the hook.

My example of this has always been a very well known hotel in Chiang Mai that I walked in to at 1am, hoping to check-in, only to find the desk clerk receiving oral sex UNDER THE FRONT DESK!

Problem 5
Fam trips.

Result 5
So it’s okay for a hotel to lead a bunch of junket-bound hacks and agents around their hotel on a five-star, this-is-why-we-are-awesome tour, but no stay is required. The recipients will go on to recommend your hotel to their customers and newspaper readers. There’s no problem with this apparently — just as long as the hacks don’t post about their stay on TripAdvisor. Okayyyyy.

What’s the solution?
If you’re a guest and user reviews are an important part of your decision-making process, ignore the most glowing and the most ranting and go with the average.

If you’re a hotel, do your best to provide the best service you can and work on the assumption you’ll never please everyone. That’s life.

Oh, and have firm rules regarding oral sex under the front desk.