Travel sites increasingly are soliciting user reviews of hotels where — at least purportedly — amateur reviewers have stayed.
Travelocity has had such reviews since 2000 and Yahoo Travel (www.travel.yahoo.com) and Expedia (www.expedia.com) added them to their hotel listings in 2004. Hotels.com (www.hotels.com) is planning to add them in the coming months. (Expedia, TripAdvisor and Hotels.com are owned by the same parent company, Expedia Inc.)
But as with any user-generated Web content, consumers need to be wary of potential abuses.
"There is a lot of room for fraud" on sites that post anonymous reviews, said J.R. Johnson, co-founder and chief executive of VirtualTourist (www.virtualtourist.com), an online community of travelers who share, among other things, reviews of hotels.
The profiles of its more than 600,000 members who submit reviews are posted online.
"Where we differentiate ourselves is you are able to read up on the author who actually wrote the reviews," Johnson said.
On sites that allow anonymous reviews, industry experts say, hotels may pay people to generate positive reviews of their property or write reviews slamming competitors.
Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the writer even stayed at a particular property. (Expedia is one site that verifies that the writer stayed at the property.) Reviewers with all sorts of mischief in mind can use the forum to their own purposes, which can be less than honorable.
I read user reviews at six websites for the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas, which is consistently ranked among the top Vegas hotels.
Two reviews at TripAdvisor jumped out at me. They were written within a week of each other, and both discussed how important it is to "tip big" when staying at the Bellagio.
One even said that bell staff members muttered unkind remarks about the amount of the tips.
A difference of opinion
THIS was inconsistent with the other reviews and with my own two stays at the Bellagio. During my visits, staff members were professional and appropriately thankful for tips of any size.
It's unclear what motivated these postings; because the reviewers are anonymous, there's no way to tell. It could even be the staff trying to goad visitors into tipping more or someone simply with a tip-chip on his shoulder.
Having other reviews to weigh them against certainly helps paint a more accurate — and usually, balanced — picture.
"TripAdvisor's greatest strength is you get enough of a range of opinions [that] you're really going to get a better feeling for a property," said Brooke Ferencsik, a TripAdvisor spokesman.
Indeed, TripAdvisor lists in chronological order nearly 500 reviews just for the Bellagio.