Luxury hotels post fake online reviews to compete with Airbnb, researchers discover

AMES, Iowa — Online reviews seem like the best way to see whether it’s worth booking a hotel or an Airbnb, but these ratings might not always be so honest. Researchers from Iowa State University say luxury hotels inflate their reviews to compete with online travel agency competitors such as Airbnb. People may want to take a deeper dive into other factors beyond reviews when planning where to stay for their next vacation.

Airbnbs have provided an appealing alternative to conventional hotel stays, often offering more accommodations and lower prices. Hotels have retaliated by slashing their own prices, but the authors of the current study wanted to see if other underhanded tactics were at play.

Before Airbnb became the go-to site for rentals, hotels were already manipulating their reviews. Past research found that 15% to 30% of online hotel reviews were fake. These fabricated reviews came from hotel managers to boost ratings and drag down competitors. The current study expands on the findings to see if “review manipulation” has increased since Airbnb’s launch in 2008.

The team collected data on 2,188 hotels in 67 cities in Texas. The hotels were divided into two groups, low-end and high-end hotels. Tax records were also obtained to confirm the times when hotels were competing with each other. They also analyzed data taken from AirDNA and categorized Airbnb listings into low-end and high-end categories. The reason for this, they explain, is because renting a private mansion with maid service and a pool is more likely to drive away people from a resort than a small cabin in the woods.

To find signs of review manipulation, the team compared hotel ratings on Tripadvisor and Expedia. TripAdvisor lets anyone post a review while Expedia only allows guests who booked their hotel stay through their site or their affiliate partners. Having a big difference in ratings between the two sites would suggest tampering with reviews.

Results showed that high-end hotels increased their review manipulation tactics when Airbnb came to market, most likely finding pressure to keep up with their options. The fake reviews were often positive and less about trashing other hotels with similar price points.

Interestingly, Airbnb’s presence in the global market did not affect reviews for low-end hotels. The rate of positive or negative fake reviews stayed the same. The study authors explain this is likely because customers are less likely to rely on reviews rather than prices and space availability in these locations.

“A lot of people who stay at low-end hotels are less likely to pay attention to reviews compared to people trying to decide if a $500 resort is worth their money,” adds Cheng Nie, an assistant professor of information systems and business analytics at Iowa State University and lead study author, in a statement. People considering high-end hotels frequently have high expectations for their stay and are more likely to search for any red flags before booking.

“We have shown the evidence that if there are more Airbnb listings available around high-end hotels, those hotels tend to self-promote more by posting fake positive ratings. Consumers need to be careful because the reviews, especially on Tripadvisor, may be inflated and not be truly representative of the quality,” says Nie.

The researchers note that there is always a possibility that hotels post fake Expedia reviews by paying for rooms.

The study is published in MIS Quarterly.

About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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