TripAdvisor is a murky business. Rather than listening to the pros, anyone using the site is trusting their dinner to the half-arsed wisdom of the internet. The brand is the populist face of the food industry, offering easy answers to the complex question of where and what you should be eating. Like a sort of restaurant-based Brexit, this is obviously a position to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Though TripAdvisor’s trustworthiness has been under scrutiny for a while, it’s only recently become clear how unscrupulous the system may actually be. Many restaurants now rise to the top thanks to a campaign of freebies and back handed incentives, whilst there some businesses who offer to build a kitchen’s online reputation through extensive TripAdvisor review posting. In one instance, a group of friends were able to push a restaurant to the top, even though the business itself didn’t actually exist. All of this makes the whole exercise seem like a complete waste of time.
In the face of criticism, the powers that be at TripAdvisor have decided to act. Not content to sit back as fake reviews and dodgy restaurateurs dominate their platform, the business have worked with Italian prosecutors to bring a conviction against a man accused of posting fake reviews on the site. The verdict is the first of its kind anywhere in the world.
According to a report in “Morning Advertiser”, a court in Puglia ruled that the posting of provably fake reviews of hotels or restaurants constitutes “criminal conduct” under Italian law. This landmark decision, which saw the accused sentenced to nine months in jail and ordered to pay €8,000 in damages, could set a serious precedent for the rest of the industry.
Through his business PromoSalento, the unnamed man offered to post glowing reviews of holiday homes, hotels and restaurants across Italy, dramatically influencing how the businesses would rank on the site. The decision to punish the man for misleading the public marks a serious departure from the previous policy of sweeping such occurrences under the rug.
Though the case was brought by a private prosecution, TripAdvisor were instrumental in providing evidence. The court relied extensively on the cooperation of the business’ in-house fraud team in order to understand the ins and outs of PromoSalento’s operation.
In a statement released after the verdict, a spokesperson announced that, “Review fraud is something TripAdvisor takes extremely seriously, employing advanced tracking technology and a dedicated team of investigators to catch paid review companies and prevent them from operating on the site.”
Brad Young, VP associate general counsel at TripAdvisor, also added that, “We see this as a landmark ruling for the Internet. Writing fake reviews has always been fraud, but this is the first time we’ve seen someone sent to jail as a result.”
Whether this “landmark ruling” is enough to repair TripAdvisor’s burgeoning image in the eyes of a more suspicious public remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that there is for the first time a tangible deterrent for someone considering a dishonest post on a review aggregator. It might not make a difference, but maybe this is a sign that TripAdvisor can become more trustworthy in the future.