TripAdvisor punished close to 35,000 businesses for exploiting fake reviews last year, with a first-of-its-kind report revealing that about 1 in 50 reviews submitted to the travel comparison site are fictitious.
The US-owned website, used by 490 million people per month to compare accommodation, hospitality and travel options, said it demoted the rankings of 34,643 businesses for either writing or paying third parties to write fake reviews.
Almost 1.4 million fake reviews – or 2.1 per cent of 66 million reviews submitted in 2018 – were detected through TripAdvisor's automated analysis technology and human moderation.
Three-quarters of those were blocked before being posted on the website, according to TripAdvisor in its "2019 Review Transparency Report" that unveiled a raft of information on types of reviews, where they come from and how they are processed.
Dean Long, chief executive of the Accommodation Association of Australia, welcomed TripAdvisor moving towards ending "double standards" between operators and comparison websites.
"I think it's really good. Businesses like TripAdvisor have a responsibility to make sure the information they're sharing has a level of accuracy," Mr Long said.
"You can't just be a distributor of misinformation and say it's not my problem. If you operate that problem, you need to take responsibility. Our members do that on their websites, saying what's included and what isn't. It's not fair for these platforms to have different standards."
Fake reviewers who "sell" positive reviews – or negative critiques of rivals – via websites such as eBay and Facebook have increasingly come under the scrutiny of regulators.
Last year TripAdvisor provided evidence that helped jail an Italian man for nine months after he tried to sell more than 1000 fictitious reviews to restaurants and hotels to boost their rankings.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in July 2018 slapped Meriton serviced apartments, owned by Australia's second-richest person, Harry Triguboff, with a $3 million fine for tampering with guest email addresses to avoid negative reviews.
Mr Long added that the travel industry also suffered from excessively critical reviews from people before their problem is rectified or from those who "just have an axe to grind".
"We know in a human environment things don't always go to plan, so reviews should acknowledge when an operator helps," he said.
TripAdvisor said it compiled the report to provide clarity on the scale of fraud on its website, and called on other digital platforms to follow suit.
"As long as other review platforms aren't taking aggressive action, then fraudsters will continue to exploit and extort small businesses for cash," said Becky Foley, TripAdvisor's senior director of trust and safety.
"It is time other platforms like Google and Facebook stepped up to the plate to join us in tackling this problem head on."
Wes Lambert, chief executive of Australia's Restaurant and Catering Association, said accurate reviews from real customers assisted both consumers and operators.
"We hate fake reviews and AI generated reviews … as technology advances, the capacity for fake reviews has really been increased," he said.
TripAdvisor Transparency Reports Facts and Figures
- The average review rating is 4.2 stars. About 57 per cent of all reviews were five stars, while 5.7 per cent were one star.
- Of the 1.4 million detected fake reviews, the largest proportion were in Russia, due largely to it hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2018.
- 91 per cent of fake reviews were biased positive reviews, 6 per cent were biased negative reviews and 3 per cent were paid reviews.
- The total volume of review submissions peaked in August with about 8 million