Online travel giant isn't very transparent about the way it operates, says columnist Christopher Elliott.
Who is hunnyb62?
The answer matters to Daniel Corcoran and a group of contributors to TripAdvisor’s Baltimore forum. It should matter to you, too.
TripAdvisor.com, which claims to be the world’s largest travel site, bills itself as a place that offers “trusted advice from real travelers.” Corcoran, an office administrator in Baltimore, says that trust was broken when a string of flattering write-ups about the Sheraton Baltimore City Center Hotel began appearing on TripAdvisor and Sheraton’s corporate site in June.
“These reviews have always awarded the hotel the maximum five stars,” he says. “They gush about the wonderful service.”
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Corcoran has never stayed at the hotel, so he can’t say whether the reviews are fair. But the sudden influx of raves aroused his suspicions. As part of a group of self-appointed travel-website watchdogs, he’s aware that some properties have found ways to sprinkle the Internet with bogus reviews.
So what’s the problem? Well, the integrity of user-generated ratings is important. Fake reports don’t just sway travelers into booking a hotel that doesn’t deserve their business or turn them away from one that does. They also destroy the credibility of the host site.
TripAdvisor says it ferrets out fakes with a proprietary fraud detection algorithm, and Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, which owns Sheraton, says it also has an aggressive policy toward manufactured ratings.
Corcoran started asking questions and connecting dots. On the Sheraton site, most of the reviews were coming from a user named hunnyb62. On TripAdvisor, similar write-ups appeared under different user names from various cities. Yet they were all saying the same thing: The City Center Hotel was one of the greatest properties ever.
Corcoran tried to contact the reviewers to determine whether they’d stayed at the hotel. He says that no one responded. He asked TripAdvisor whether the reviews were legitimate. More silence. But Sheraton agreed to look into hunnyb62.
A Starwood representative responded to him by email, saying that although he would not be able to discuss the details of Corcoran’s complaint because of “a privacy concern,” he could confirm that there was a “known glitch in our review system.”
“We have identified a fix and are working to address it,” the representative wrote.
But that wasn’t enough for Corcoran. He asked me to help him solve the hunnyb62 riddle.
I asked Starwood whether it could fill in a few details. Helen Horsham-Bertels, Starwood’s senior director of consumer affairs, said after concerns about hunnyb62 were raised, she spoke with the hotel’s general manager.
“The manager confirmed that her team was encouraging guests to share their positive experiences,” she says. One employee in particular had been “a little overzealous” in her efforts to recruit positive reviews. “That said, the reviews are legitimate and an honest assessment of the guests’ stays,” Horsham-Bertels says.
So, then, who is hunnyb62?
The Starwood system arbitrarily assigned that handle to certain reviews — an electronic hiccup that Horsham-Bertels says has been fixed. “I can also offer you our assurance that the hotel team will be less aggressive going forward in their encouragement of guests to post reviews,” she told me.
What about TripAdvisor? A representative told me that the site had removed “a number of reviews” of the City Center Hotel in response to a complaint, but it declined to say how many. It also erased the forum thread in which Corcoran and other members had presented their initial concerns, claiming that the discussion violated its forum guidelines.
“No system is perfect,” TripAdvisor spokeswoman Amelie Hurst says. “We’re continually working to stay ahead of those attempting to game the system.”
I sent her response to Corcoran and his cohorts, who deemed it unsatisfying. They say that TripAdvisor should be more forthcoming about the way it identifies and deals with questionable reviews. Its approach to the string of Sheraton reviews, Corcoran adds, makes him “uneasy.”
“Why remove the thread?” he asks. “They could have simply added a note declaring the matter closed and locked it.”
TripAdvisor’s actions are troubling to me, too. And a little ironic.
Here’s a publicly traded company that has made millions by offering a platform for user-generated reviews, insisting that transparency would help the entire travel industry. Yet when it comes to being transparent about the way it operates, it goes strangely quiet.
When questions about the authenticity of a review are raised, the legions of reviewers who made TripAdvisor what it is today deserve a prompt and unambiguous answer. In fact, we all do.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. His column runs twice a week at seattletimes.com