Travel websites, such as Priceline.com Inc. and Expedia Inc., are clamping down on fake online consumer reviews of hotels, which could undermine a growth area.
Trustworthy sources of information are sometimes difficult to find on the Internet, and user reviews have become a way for many sites to offer apparently unbiased opinions -- at a low cost to the web companies.
But the authenticity of the opinions has not always been reliable.
"We have certainly seen instances with other properties where insiders have put reviews up for a particular hotel or a particular thing and it's not a legitimate review," said Jeff Boyd, Priceline.com's chief executive.
"It's somebody who's in effect been paid to make the property look good." Boyd said, speaking at the Reuters Hotels and Casinos 2007 Summit in Los Angeles this week.
There's a lot at stake. About $69 billion were spent last year at online travel sites, up 13 percent from a year ago, according to research firm comScore. Expedia's TripAdvisor, the largest hotel review site with more than 5 million reviews, says that 97 percent of reviewers return to the site to plan their next trip.
Priceline.com says it addresses the problem of bogus reviews by only allowing users to post opinions if its records show that the person has stayed at the hotel.
Every review on TripAdvisor is read by a person trained in fraud detection. If a fake review does slip through, it is taken down immediately, and hotels seeking to "game the system" are penalised, said TripAdvisor spokesman Brooke Ferencsik.
Rob Solomon, CEO of SideStep, a travel search engine start-up, said at the Reuters Summit that user-generated content -- mainly reviews -- is one of the company's fastest growing areas. The reviews are key to increasing traffic for the advertising-funded site.
He estimates that 1 percent to 2 percent of the reviews on SideStep and other travel sites are bogus. But he says the industry and users are aware of the problem and addressing it.
"We do a little bit of quality control and then the community starts policing itself. The cream of the crop starts rising to the top," Solomon said.
"It will never go away completely, but I think you can minimise it," he said. "Consumers are pretty smart. They can smell a rat. I don't see (fake reviews) as an imminent threat."
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