Thursday, 24 February 2011

NBC Today Show looks into "shills" and fake reviews

An interview with me about “shills” and fake reviews for hotels, cruises, etc. on travel Web sites airs this morning at 7:40 a.m. on the TODAY show. Click here or click the picture of me below for the full segment:

Edward Hasbrouck on the TODAY Show

The quotes from me (starting at 5:00 of the segment; click the arrow on the image below for an excerpt) were taken from a much longer interview, most of which was cut when they found an actual shill in Costa Rica willing to talk about his work on camera.


Faking reviews is so mainstream, hotels can hire ad agencies to do the dirty work for them. Travel writer Edward Hasbrouckk says he’s seen it firsthand:

“I was at a travel conference not long ago where one of the largest advertising agencies told this audience [of travel executives] that they had an entire division in a third-world country, where labor is cheap, who were already prepared and available to post favorable reviews and say good things about whatever their client paid them to.”

Posting fake reviews is illegal. The Federal Trade Commission says it’s doing the best it can to police the Web, but to this day, hasn’t busted anyone….

My original report on this issue got little notice when I first published it in my blog and newsletter in 2006, but the issue won’t go away. There was a flurry of interest in cruise reviews in 2009, and I talked more about what you can do to avoid getting taken in by fake reviews this interview with the BBC later that year. And the Guardian [U.K.] newspaper picked up my story again last month, shortly before I heard from the TODAY Show.

If you are coming here from NBC, welcome! Check out my books and blog. Follow me on Twitter, or sign up for my newsletter if you’d like more travel news, tips, and advice by e-mail weekly (currently featuring the travel lessons of The Amazing Race but a bit lighter than usual since I’m busy working on a new edition of my best-selling book, The Practical Nomad: How To Travel Around The World).

[Update: NBC has posted responses from some hotels, travel review Web sites, industry associations, and the Federal Trade Commission. Of course the companies that make money from travel review Web sites that depend on “user-generated content” downplay the problem, since their business model depends on not paying for independent, professional reviews. Sometimes free “advice” is worth exactly what you pay for it. (The TODAY Show mentioned one independent hotel Web site, but not the whole world of other guidebooks and informational Web sites written by independent professionals who don’t get paid by hotels.) The key takeaway in the responses posted by NBC is from the FTC: “As described in the FTC’s Endorsement Guides, a person or company that endorses a service or product should be upfront about any financial connection they may have with the marketer. For example, if an employee of a hotel writes a review of the hotel, they must say they are an employee. Posing as an independent reviewer would violate the law.”]

Link | Posted by Edward on Thursday, 24 February 2011, 01:00 ( 1:00 AM)

Thanks for reporting on this.

For my personal travel planning, I always rely primarily on guidebooks whose authors/publishers are likely to have carefully vetted the hotels, restaurants, tour operators, and tourist attractions which they list. I rarely use on-line "rating" sites, and then only to see if there are reviews that have been done since the guidebook was published.

Posted by: Dick Jordan, 24 February 2011, 09:26 ( 9:26 AM)

More on what hotels do to "encourage" favorable reviews, by Kate Springer,

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 18 September 2013, 07:43 ( 7:43 AM)
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"Don't believe anything just because you read it on the Internet. Anyone can say anything on the Internet, and they do. The Internet is the most effective medium in history for the rapid global propagation of rumor, myth, and false information." (From The Practical Nomad Guide to the Online Travel Marketplace, 2001)
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