Tripadvisor Responds - the algorithm’s in rude health and Hanoi’s the world’s best for service

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19 Aug 2015

Tripadvisor has responded to my recent blog pieces about wildly improbable results in their Traveller’s Choice awards. Here’s what they had to say.

Earlier this month, I wrote a blog piece about highly improbable results in TripAdvisor’s Traveller’s Choice hotels awards. I’d discovered that Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, dominates the hotel service category both in Asia (7 out of the Asia’s best 10 hotels for service), and globally (5 out of the world’s top 25 hotel’s for service).

Something wasn’t right.

Statistical probability, the Hanoi hotel scene, and tales I’d been told about TripAdvisor shenanigans in Hanoi, led me to question the results.

The world's best service comes from here?
Photo: Mark Bowyer The world's best service comes from here?


You can read the original blog piece here.

I sent the piece to TripAdvisor with some questions and they have responded below. It’s pretty standard corporate stuff. Not terribly enlightening. I guess I wasn’t really expecting an admission that the algorithm is broken.

Here’s what they had to say.

1. RC: Does TripAdvisor stand by the integrity of the lists referred to in the blog piece?

TA: Yes, we stand by the integrity of our Travellers’ Choice awards for Top Hotels for Service in the World and in Asia. The winners are based on the millions of reviews and opinions collected in a single year from travellers around the world. The Top Hotels for Service were identified taking into account the quality of reviews and ratings that came from travellers for service that they had experienced.
 
We focus a lot of attention on making sure that the reviews and content on our site are an accurate reflection of trips that travellers take -  in fact, when we’ve asked our travellers how they found TripAdvisor reviews, 94% say the reviews accurately reflected the trip they took.
 
2.       RC: How does TripAdvisor explain the prominence of Hanoi, and Marrakesh in these lists from more than a million hotels?

TA: Both Marrakesh and Hanoi have been recognised by travellers around the world in this year’s Travellers’ Choice Destinations awards, taking the #1 and #4 spots in the World respectively. Being such popular destinations amongst travellers, it is only natural that there are many top hotels to be found in these destinations.  
 
3.       RC: Does a human being sign off these awards or is the algorithm given a free hand?

TA: We have a rigorous fraud programme and use our proprietary algorithms to first determine the awards. Our team does run through the lists to ensure that the list consists of the best accommodations in specific categories and geographies. 


So, move on folks, nothing to see here. Despite these bizarre results, TripAdvisor claims to be comfortable that the algorithm is in fine fettle.

But if Hanoi is king of hospitality in Asia and the world, why isn’t it shouting the news from the rooftops?

Could it be that Hanoians themselves feel a tad embarrassed by the unlikely results?

Hanoi's 5 star hotels are MIA in TripAdvisor's awards.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Hanoi's 5 star hotels are MIA in TripAdvisor's awards.


I posted the blog piece on a couple of local Facebook forums. Of the many comments, only one person was ready to argue in favour of the integrity of TripAdvisor’s awards.

Most took for granted the proposition that the lists are scammed.

Here are some typical comments -

“Hanoi is the global leader on cheating TripAdviser wink emoticon”

“Hanoi well known to have corrupt trip advisor ratings”

“Omg this is hilarious! I can’t stop laughing :))))).
Actually I’m happy for these unknown hotels in vietnam coz they are doing quite a good job at false marketing in order to attract customers. Its bad for travelers but awesome for them :)) .”

Hanoi's restaurants and hotels aren't convinced that all is well at TripAdvisor either.

Several contacted me directly, expressing their frustration. One General Manager of a 5 star hotel sent me copies of emails touting dodgy TripAdvisor review services. I’ve been sent similar emails before.

The owner of a small restaurant told me he had nothing but positive reviews on TripAdvisor before suddenly receiving several suspect negative reviews. These were followed up by an email from a company offering TripAdvisor review services. He was very suspicious. His TA ranking plunged.

Another Hanoi restaurant owner told me of a restaurant that deluged TripAdvisor with positive reviews, shot to the top, before being penalised by TA with a huge ranking drop. TripAdvisor was so central to their business that they changed the name, entered a slightly different address at the same location, and now they’re scamming again and back in the top 10.

Vietnam is awash with companies purporting to offer TripAdvisor review services. Whether these services have any impact or not I cannot say. Some businesses have clearly worked out TripAdvisor. I’ve studied the top listings enough to see that.

Of course many excellent hotels, restaurants and other services rank highly on TripAdvisor and deserve to do so. The growing perception of pervasive scamming though, damages these quality businesses.

I’m at a point now that I view any hotel or restaurant in the TripAdvisor top 10 with suspicion. That’s a shame.

I spend lots of time talking to hotels and restaurants. They all acknowledge the extraordinary power of TripAdvisor - before expressing frustration and disillusionment both at its lack of accountability and the pervasiveness of scams.

As was pointed out by a resort owner, TripAdvisor’s most obvious defect is its failure to verify that reviewers actually stayed in the hotel or at at the restaurant being reviewed. And yet the technology is there that would allow prospective reviewers to check-in, using smartphone GPS (like a Facebook or Foursquare check-in) thereby at least verifying that they actually used the business they’re reviewing. No solution is completely scamproof but this and other measures would help.

They'd improve the integrity of TripAdvisor, but they'd also likely reduce the number of reviews. And as TripAdvisor is primarily in the business of selling hotels and tours, for now at least, quantity seems to be trumping quality.

Of course if TripAdvisor is doing its job well, then hotels and restaurants will occasionally find it a source of unwelcome reviews. But that’s not where the frustration lies. Business owners feel that the only way to top rankings is through scamming. Many also complain that their businesses have been on the wrong end of malicious and dodgy reviews.

I don’t know how pervasive these problems are outside Vietnam and Cambodia - where I have direct experience.

Whichever way you look at it, TripAdvisor has a problem. Either they’re being scammed. Or their algorithm is delivering ridiculous results. Or both. No sensible person could propose, as TripAdvisor does in its response, that 7 of Asia’s best 10 hotels for service are in Hanoi. It’s just not possible - no matter how much you like Hanoi and its hotels.

So what does that mean for the rest of TripAdvisor’s rankings?

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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