A crackdown on fake online reviews is welcome but we already have the power to dodge them.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission this week said it was tackling the issue of fake and paid online reviews to stop businesses taking advantage of consumer trust.
It is not before time and is particularly relevant to travellers. Online reviews play a huge role in our choice of hotels, tours and other products.
Numerous studies have found online reviews to be a key influence on travel decisions, while a recent Sensis social media report suggests about three-quarters of Australian social media users read online reviews before they buy.
The ACCC says that along with fake and paid reviews, it is looking at businesses that benefit from a commercial relationship with a review site or artificially inflate their review results by offering consumers incentives for posting reviews.
It has released a detailed guide for businesses, outlining the need for transparency, identifying non-genuine reviews and not omitting negative reviews.
The ACCC says it will be monitoring online reviews for those doing the wrong thing and penalties of up to $1.1 million can be applied.
I don't envy the commission the task, with online travel reviews alone now into the hundreds of millions, but I applaud it for trying.
The thought of choosing a hotel or tour based on fake reviews is galling and those who rort the system are tainting one of the best resources travellers have.
However, we already have the ability to shun fake reviews – or the potential for fake reviews – by choosing which sites we use and trust.
Once it was only TripAdvisor but now there are multiple platforms and many have solid systems for authenticating users.
Hotels.com for example, now has more than 7 million reviews posted by travellers who have booked through the site. Travellers are sent a link once they have completed their stay, so you cannot post a review unless you have paid for a room and stayed in it.
Interestingly, Hotels.com has chosen to display the TripAdvisor rating next to its own, so you can look at both and make up your own mind.
The Hotels.com site gets points from me for breaking down its reviews into trip type, such as business, family or romance, so you can read the reviews most likely to be relevant to you.
It is not a lot of use knowing that the hotel staff were happy to scatter rose petals and bring ice-cold champagne if you're going there on your own for a business trip (unless you've had a particularly stressful day, I guess …)
If you're looking for a hotel in Australia, Wotif.com claims to have more authentic traveller reviews for Australian accommodation than any other site.
Again, the site allows reviews only by invitation and has published more than 820,000 reviews of properties.
Expedia says it ensures its ratings are genuine by allowing only those who have booked through the site and completed their stay to post a review.
Spokeswoman Kelly Cull says Expedia research found reviews to be important to 68 per cent of Australian travellers. “So it's extremely important our reviews are reliable,” she says.
Hotel Club provides the option of ticking a box to say you want to see only verified reviews, which makes you wonder why they have non-verified ones, while Viator provides verified traveller reviews and photos for tours and attractions.
Meanwhile, TripAdvisor is working hard on its reputation with initiatives such as linking to Facebook accounts to identify individual users.
Spokeswoman Jean Ow-Yeong says TripAdvisor has a tracking system that “maps the how, what, where and when of each review” and picks up patterns of suspicious activity.
It also employs fraud specialists to investigate reports of fake reviews.
“People continue to join and visit TripAdvisor in increasing numbers because of the usefulness that the traveller reviews and opinions provide,” Ow-Yeong says.
The Australian consumer organisation Choice is not convinced, saying the number of staff TripAdvisor has checking for fake reviews does not add up with the number of reviews on the site.
“It's not hard to see how a fake might slip through the cracks,” Choice says, giving the example of a British restaurant that was receiving rave reviews but turned out not to exist.
Personally, I don't have a big issue with TripAdvisor. I've always felt it has enough volume to outweigh the fake and paid reviews.
This is borne out by how often TripAdvisor's ratings match those of sites with verified reviews. It is unusual to see disparity in the overall traveller ratings.
However, I rarely use TripAdvisor.
When we have so many other sources of information, why rely on reviews that may or may not be real?
Do you use TripAdvisor? Have you found any useful alternatives? Do you find online reviews to be reliable? Post your comments below.