BUSINESSES in Andalucia are paying to post dozens of FAKE five-star reviews on TripAdvisor and other global websites in a bid to increase their rankings.
An Olive Press investigation has unearthed companies offering packages of 50 glowing reviews for just €400 – which the review site considers to be a ‘form of fraud’.
Restaurants, hotels and garages have utilised the services of Malaga-based company GCI Marketing, which promises ‘genuine reviews’ that will be ‘tailored to your business’.
We can reveal that one of his clients, a Malaga restaurateur, managed to get to number one in his town on TripAdvisor after ‘purchasing’ dozens of ‘excellent’ reviews over just two months.
In total, 99% of the comments for his restaurant – which we are not listing for legal reasons – are ‘excellent’ with only one ‘very good’.
“The restaurant was over 100 (in the list) but look at it now,” GCI boss Ben Fisher told the Olive Press.
“It doesn’t matter if (the reviewers) eat there or not, although if you want to pay a bit more we can actually send someone,” added Fisher, who lives in Alhaurin de la Torre.
“In fact if you pay we can send four people to share one pizza. Then we spread the reviews out over a few days.
“I have dozens of clients.”
The Olive Press probe was launched after we were approached by an angry reader, who had been targeted by an unsolicited email from GCI last month.
The advert read: “We offer packages of tailor made professional review packages giving your business a boost and the edge over your competitors… also making your business look more attractive.”
Posing as potential clients with a holiday rental business in Marbella, our reporters were told by Foster that the reviews would be ‘from real people’.
“The reviews are from real people on the Costa del Sol, it’s not a bunch of fake accounts putting reviews on, don’t worry, they are all verified users,” said Fisher, from Hull.
“A potential customer doesn’t know if it is real or fake. It is not illegal. You can’t get prosecuted or in trouble for this… it’s just cheating.”
Describing himself as a ‘web marketing specialist’, he explained how if our reporters bought 50 reviews, our new business would receive two five-star reviews per day from his network of users consisting of ‘friends and family friends’.
He offered to do 20 reviews for €150 or 50 reviews for €400 – with payments made by cash or PayPal.
So confident was he that it would boost our business ranking he offered a 100% satisfaction or a ‘money-back guarantee’.
“You’re paying for direct marketing – the higher you go on TripAdvisor the more you pop up as recommended and the more business you get,” he insisted.
Sadly, the process is not new.
TripAdvisor has been caught out before, including a famous stunt pulled off by VICE in which an undercover reporter set up a fake restaurant, The Shed at Dulwich, and made it the number one restaurant in London.
Just this week a simple Google search unearthed a US-based company, Reviews that Stick, offering packages on the global supersite from $69 per month.
“We can provide TripAdvisor reviews that would help your hotel or restaurant to improve its reputation and increase its number of customers. So order your TripAdvisor reviews now!” it offered.
Local hoteliers and restaurateurs were quick to support out investigation.
“I’m sure it is very common with restaurants here,” said Mark Wardell, manager of the Sunset Beach Club hotel, in Benalmadena. “And some hotels must also do it.
“It’s very open to manipulation and fake reviews.
“You often see these small places pop up with phenomenal reviews that quickly sink without trace,” he added.
Restaurateur Robert Grimmond, of well-established El Jardin restaurant in Frigiliana, added he had been aware of this practice for years.
“It’s disappointing that businesses on the coast are still buying reviews in this way,” he added.
“If you really want to know if a restaurant is good or not, ask someone you trust or go yourself!”
Last night TripAdvisor thanked the Olive Press and confirmed it was ‘investigating the case’.
“We strongly oppose any attempt to manipulate a business’ ranking,” said a spokesman, adding that its 24/7 investigations team was ‘proactive and effective’ at catching anyone who attempts to market paid review services.
“We take serious steps to penalize any properties caught using their services,” he added.
The TripAdvisor website states: “Unfortunately, there are some individuals and/or companies who try to exploit hospitality business owners by soliciting money in exchange for fake reviews…
“We refer to this category of fake reviews as Paid Reviews and they represent a form of fraud. It is a problem we take extremely seriously.”
After revealing ourselves as journalists, Fisher told the Olive Press: “People pay for direct traffic, people purchase the reviews, then a team of four will go into the premises, share food and leave a review on their experience… it’s a service that is genuine and helps everybody… the reason my clients pay is to cover the cost of the food purchased by each customer!”
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