Reviews play an important role for most travelers making online reservations, but those travelers have grown skeptical of reviews over the years as they become easier to manipulate. It isn’t just travel companies looking for an edge, though. Online retailers have played the reviews game for years to improve their online reputations, and major sites like Ctrip, Mafengwo, Taobao, Amazon, TripAdvisor, and others have to deal with the ongoing manipulation of their review systems.
On October 20, a WeChat report from the account “XiaoShengBiBi” in collaboration with data consultancy Hooray Data (乎睿数据) accused online travel agency and user-generated travel content site Mafengwo of fabricating up to 85 percent of restaurant and hotel reviews on its site. The report also claims that the company has paid users to copy reviews from competitors, noting that it had plagiarized many of the questionable reviews from other sites. Some reviews were allegedly run through translation software after being lifted from Google and Yelp, the report alleged. In addition, it said that the accounts responsible for the fake reviews take part in the site’s giveaways, thus tainting the outcome of those contests.
A report posted by WeChat account XiaoShengBiBi claimed that 85 percent of Mafengwo reviews are fake
Mafengwo, which launched in 2006 and operates with backing from Singaporean state investor Temasek Holdings, responded to the accusations on Weibo, saying that restaurant reviews only account for 3 percent of user-generated content, and much more of their content is user-submitted photos, itineraries, and travel diaries. The company also claimed that it removes about 26,000 suspicious posts and reviews each week if they violate its terms and conditions of use. Mafengwo also released a statement on Weibo saying that it would take legal action as the report was not accurate. The company has reportedly filed a defamation lawsuit against the consultancy, according to Chinese media outlet Sohu.
Mafengwo is not the first online travel company to have their user-generated content manipulated, and it surely won’t be the last. Even China’s major online retailers have faced similar issues. E-commerce giant Alibaba sued Shatui.com in West Lake District People’s Court of Hangzhou in 2016 for connecting online merchants with writers who would post fake reviews. Alibaba won the case and $30,600 (RMB 202,000) in compensation.
It’s not only a problem in China, either. Just last year, a British writer manipulated TripAdvisor’s review system to turn his South London shed into the top-rated restaurant in the city—and he didn’t even serve any food. Oobah Butler, the owner of the shed, said that he had previously been paid to write fake reviews on the site to boost businesses’ reputations and visibility in searches. Following the incident, TripAdvisor told The Telegraph that the fake reviews were not “a real-world example” because Butler set up his shed to test the company.
For its part, TripAdvisor has set out to crack down on fake reviews. It even uncovered one user in Italy this year and took legal action against him and his company, which resulted in a fine and jail time. The online travel site had built the case against this fake reviewer since 2015.
In the case of Mafengwo, the report has generated a mix of reactions, but top comments on the company’s Weibo response showing support for the platform. Some comments indicated that users will continue using the platform even if some reviews are proven fake.
Netizens’ reactions to Mafengwo’s response on Weibo have been mostly positive
As online travel agencies further rely on user-generated content to boost search rankings and draw more customers, the competition among businesses will only grow. Therefore, in a crowded marketplace, businesses will look for any way to gain an edge, and in some cases, that means cheating and manipulating the system to get a market share. If a restaurant or travel service wants potential tourists to find them, it needs more positive reviews on sites like Mafengwo, and if a few falsified reviews take little effort, time, and money to produce, it could easily be rolled into a company’s marketing strategy.
As travel agencies have no simple fix for fake reviews at their disposal, it’s up to the users to either provide more reputable content to combat the fakes or become more discerning when reading the available reviews.