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Online reviews – are they a scam?

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I have to confess that I’m probably as bad as just about everyone else in the world in that I regularly rely on online reviews to determine whether or not I go ahead with a purchase. My particular area for using them is when we are delving through lists from holiday rental companies and need to find out what is good and what is not so good.

We have specific websites of particular interest to us, and we are regular visitors to ownersdirect.co.uk and homeaway.co.uk. I seem to recall that these are now one and the same, but the reviews that appear on these websites usually appear to be genuine and bona fide. I rarely feel as if I am reading something that has been written by a call centre somewhere in Albania or India.

This is not the case with booking.com as we recently found out.

I was scrolling through a list of holiday villas in Italy, looking for a week’s break in something not too expensive but with a swimming pool or access to a swimming pool nearby. I pulled up a list of about six to seven villas that I was considering renting in and around Siena and Florence. Feedback on a couple of these was a little sparse on the homeaway website because they had only been recently advertised on there. However when I put the name of the complex into Google it came up with references to booking.com and a number of reviews had been left on this site. One of the villas that we were looking at had a list of about forty 5 star reviews, which seemed exceptionally odd because most accommodation in this area is lucky to get three or four reviews on it over a period of about 5 years. We were not looking at the luxury end of the market and it is not particularly common to see that many places that get 5 stars because of the standard of accommodation, to which there are always gripes and concerns, hence why we read the reviews carefully.

However on reading through, this particular villa and complex had forty separate 5 star reviews, all of which came from individual countries. There was a visitor from each of Israel, Venezuela, Russia, Cyprus, Hungary, Germany, France, Belgium, and Italy amongst others. This was similarly very strange because it is highly irregular to see visitors all from different countries, and much more regular to see quite a few reviews all from the same country. This is because quite often complexes are advertised by particular travel agents and operators in particular locations, so for example Interhome tends to pick up French and Spanish customers.

It was pretty clear that these reviews were mostly, if not all, fake and had been put on there deliberately by the owner of the villa to try and generate more bookings. He had made the mistake of being too greedy and putting too many reviews on from too many different countries, as it was quite clearly fake.

And this is the problem with online reviews. There is no independent verifier of online reviews who can go through and remove those that are fake and leave on those that are genuine. There is a whole industry in writing fake reviews and presumably large call centres full of operatives doing it in countries as far away as South Africa, India and Poland. It is sometimes fairly easy to spot the reviews that have been written by these call centres due to the poor quality of language used, whether this is in English or French or Spanish. But if you are just quickly skimming through lists and discounting those that are not at the top end for the level of reviews they have, then it can be a very frustrating and annoying thing to miss a good quality villa or apartment in preference to something that may be pretty grotty but the owner has invested in a number of 5 star reviews to boost himself up the charts.

So when you’re looking at booking.com be very afraid of all the reviews you see on there. The apartment we saw was almost certainly completely fraudulent and this is on a site that claims to be fully vetting reviews and using genuine ones to promote its accommodation.