TripAdvisor has come under fire after its fraud detection systems failed to prevent a non-existent business becoming one of the most highly-rated restaurants in a popular seaside town.
Oscar's in Brixham, Devon, first appeared on the website in May, and after receiving a string of glowing reviews climbed above 37 other establishments in the rankings.
It was praised for its "mind-blowing", "simply divine" "perfect" and "amazing" culinary creations that "bordered on sorcery", with some even suggesting it ought to be awarded a Michelin star.
The listing for Oscar's remained in place until yesterday, despite the appearance of two reviews posted on July 20 and 23 confirming that it does not actually exist. Only after being contacted by London's Telegraph for a comment was it removed by TripAdvisor.
Chris Emmins, co-founder of the online reputation management firm KwikChex, said the listing cast doubt on TripAdvisor's ability to spot fraudulent reviews.
"The listing featured over-the-top reviews for a fake business, but it went undetected for more than two months" he said. "It's difficult to see how TripAdvisor's system can detect elaborate fraud, if they can't detect one like this."
In response to criticism from hoteliers and restaurateurs, who claim that many of its anonymous reviews are either fake or defamatory, TripAdvisor recently launched a new crackdown on questionable postings. The Telegraph reported that it had developed a new algorithm based on techniques pioneered to combat credit card and insurance fraud. This would check every one of the 60 reviews posted every minute by visitors.
While its crackdown failed to spot the fake reviews of Oscar's, Ziggy Hussain, the owner of a genuine restaurant in Halifax, claims his business has suffered after nearly 300 reviews – which he insists were legitimate – were deleted. Once ranked among the best restaurants in the northern town, Ziggy's Spice House is now rated 122nd out of 135.
TripAdvisor maintained that the removal of the reviews was "justified… based upon patterns of suspicious activity unearthed by a number of different filters on our systems that were then verified through further investigation by the team."
"In line with our standard protocol, and following continued dialogue with the owner about compliance with our guidelines and policies, as well as removing the reviews in question from the site, we also reduced the restaurant's ranking in the Popularity Index for a period of time. We continue to welcome the opportunity to assist the business with the issue to avoid being penalized in the future, where appropriate."
Of the listing for Oscar's, a spokesman said: "Upon investigation, as this property doesn't meet our listing guidelines, the listing has been removed. With over 60 pieces of content coming in every minute, occasionally a review or business that does not meet TripAdvisor's guidelines may slip through the cracks, and in these rare cases, our members can report the material to us, helping maintain the high quality content of our site."
Earlier this year a senior executive at one of the world's largest hotel groups admitted breaching TripAdvisor's rules by posting dozens of glowing reviews about the firm's properties. Peter Hook, who described himself on Twitter as "director of propaganda" for Accor hotels in Asia and the Pacific, also published a number of critical reviews about the company's rivals.
The Telegraph, London
NOTE: An earlier version of this story featured a picture of Torquay in England, incorrectly captioned as Brixham.