Sunday, June 1, 2008

How to pick out shill-reviewed places on Trip Advisor

One helpful thing to know about shills (people who post rave reviews under alias for their own operations, or those of family or friends) is that they have no restraint. In fact, lack of restraint is an inherent part of what makes a shill a shill! Take a look at this page listing a few Trip Advisor reviews I wrote (anonymously) about hotels I stayed in during my massive Chow Tour

Notice anything strange? Users generally find me quite a helpful reviewer. On three of the four places I reviewed, all raters rated my review "helpful". On the fourth review, I was found remarkably unhelpful, and by a much larger pool of review-raters. Take a look, and you'll see I'd written a tepid review for a very highly rated hotel; a review in stark contrast to the many raves for the place. And you'll see a number of others whose experience failed to live up to those of other reviewers. They were voted "unhelpful" as well, and by a larger-than-usual pool (relatively few Trip Advisor users rate reviews...much fewer than on, say, Amazon). 

In things like food, books, movies, etc., avid-but-honest partisans will annoyingly down-rate a review's helpfulness simply because they disagree with the opinion. The most thoughtful negative review of Star Wars, for example, will swiftly be marked "unhelpful" by scads of incensed fanboys. But while the Montreal Springhill Suites may have its genuine fans, they are unlikely (unless they're stark raving bonkers) to be quite so fervid. No one, in other words, but an insider would down-rate a well-written negative review of a hotel. But, again: lacking restraint, insiders can't help themselves.

So the upshot is this: if a venue on Trip Advisor seems over-hyped, watch for down-rated "helpfulness" ratings on reasonably thoughtful negative reviews. If so, you should be extremely skeptical of ratings for the venue. 

It must be noted, however, that some good - even great - businesses shill. So some raves for shilly places may be legitimate. Of course, it's hard to distinguish, and that ambiguity greatly reduces the power of legitimate raves. What a pity to see good businesses devalue genuine consumer word-of-mouth via their own underhandedness!

The penalty for dishonesty is always devaluation of one sort or another. Quality operators would do far better to let their reputation grow organically! They also have a vested interest in seeing earnest consumer opinion networks retain credibility, because a robustly authentic consumer network is the best imaginable friend to quality businesses.

Lousy operators who shill would be better served in spending their time and energy* improving quality, rather than striving to guerilla market mediocrity. Customers lured to a poor experience via subterfuge are likely to become unhappy customers, and unhappy customers can be more expensive, in the end, than no customers at all. 

*In some cases, they spend hard cash. Public relations firms have over the past couple of years begun offering outsourced shill services. We at Chowhound were aware of this early on (one perq of running a beloved resource is that we have moles pretty much everwhere), and the Wall Street Journal reported on it late last year.


Anonymous said...

*****Superb first entry. Anyone who says otherwise is unhelpful. But I also mean it. The "mark as helpful" option maybe should be retired on TA AND Amazon. Even skimming, a consumer should be able to spot a thoughtful review from a goose-the-numbers thumbs up/thumbs down. I've also wondered about the shills' opposites, the zero-star-campaigners. Is there a way to spot a negative campaign? And can those campaigns be considered sabotage?

Jim Leff said...

"The "mark as helpful" option maybe should be retired on TA AND Amazon."

But then we, the users, would lose this method of detecting shills. My point was that shills are getting increasingly devious, so those of us using (and running) consumer opinion sites need every tool we can get.

The opposite of a shill is a smearer, and well-moderated sites pay equal attention to both. In fact, smearing is a type of shilling when it's done by operators (or their family/friends) to sabotage competitors. Other smearers include disgruntled ex-employees (or ex-boy/girlfriends), and raging consumers on a tear (easy to spot...they post super-long missives full of tedious detail, and are almost always stark newbies, who've been hunting around for venues to lash out in...they usually cross post the same thing in multiple forums).

Dave said...

It's wonderful to see you in the slogosphere.

One of my favorite things is triangulating reviews of any kind and trying to decide whether I would like the object of attention.

I've only occasionally gone to Trip Advisor, but with most of the sites I do frequent, I think that reviews are deemed unhelpful much more often because of disagreement on merits than because of shilling or smearing.

Note that your beloved Halifax Marriott Harbourfront received a scathing review by someone who never even saw a room -- as you might guess, the review was deemed unhelpful by many.

Much to my surprise, the site I've had the most triangulating success is with Amazon. But it has taken years of study.

Jim Leff said...

Thanks, Dave

Truly unhelpful reviews should be and are marked down by legitimate parties.

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