Jan. 4, 2008 -- So, what are your winter plans? Looking for a hotel? Here's the 21st century way to book it: log on to one of the big travel Web sites such as Travelocity, IgoUgo or W8there and read the reviews, billed as comments by folks who actually stayed there. Good ones will raise the hotel's ranking. Then all you have to do is click to make your reservation. But how reliable is all that advice on the travel sites?
Journalist, consumer advocate and travel industry critic Christopher Elliott says that the notion that you can always trust the hotel reviews you read online is a myth.
"Some of the reviews that you see are either encouraged by hotels or in some cases even fabricated by the hotels themselves," said Elliott.
That doesn't seem true of the big chains like Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott — as far as we can tell, they're not guilty. But how about the N'er Beach Motel in Wells, Maine? Its owner has been accused of writing glowing reviews of the N'er Beach and negative reviews of its competitors — all posted on one of the travel sites. And the Inn of the Beachcomber in Oregon offered its guests "a 15 percent discount on a future stay" if they would post a positive review on a big online site.
"This happens more than people expect because the user-generated sites are very powerful," said Pauline Frommer, a travel expert and author of 11 travel guidebooks. She says online hotel "reviews" are often more like advertisements.
"A good review, or 10 good reviews, or 20 good reviews translates into thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars for that hotel," Frommer said.
TripAdvisor is the largest online travel site, posting more than 10 million hotel reviews. It boasts an elaborate system to flag suspicious entries like that of Maine's N'er Beach Motel, and warns readers when they turn up.
Christine Petersen, the senior vice president of marketing for TripAdvisor, said that the owner of the Ne'er Beach Motel did indeed write a positive review of her hotel and a negative review of another hotel — under her own name and E-mail address.
"And then when we contacted her about it, she said she wasn't going to stop," Petersen said, laughing. "And so we have a notice that's on the property page."
The notice says, "This property has attempted to manipulate our popularity index by interfering with the unbiased nature of our reviews."
Peterson says a hotel's owners feel "pretty unhappy" when they see a harsh penalty like that.
"It hurts them in their ranking," she said. "Their ranking will fall as a result of that."
And a lowered rank means less revenue. But the phony reviews TripAdvisor catches may be just the tip of the iceberg. Elliot doesn't believe that travel Web sites catch the majority of the bogus reviews.
"There are so many more hotels trying to beat the system that these sites just don't know which ones are real and which ones aren't," he said. "Even if they tell us that they do!"
The owners of the N'er Beach Motel and the Inn of the Beachcomber told ABC News that they don't see anything wrong with writing and sending in their own reviews to TripAdvisor. Their defense — everybody does it.
And they might be right. Frommer says she is still annoyed by the scheme of one bed and breakfast in Hawaii.
"The owner of the B&B told me that she had gotten a bad review, so she wrote to all her former customers and asked them to post good reviews," Frommer said. "And because of that, she became the top-ranked B&B. And I couldn't believe it because I knew that not far away was a much nicer place."
If consumers aren't always getting unbiased advice on the big travel Web sites, what about a hotel's own site? Are those reviews real?
"I've had an experience, for example, where I saw a motel's Web site and thought, 'Oh, this is gonna be great,'" said Elliott. "I booked it, got there and it was just a rundown dump."
What is it about human nature that makes us trust these reviews and expect the best?
"Everyone wants to have a good vacation," said Elliott.
But why would hotels post any bad reviews they receive on their own sites? Nobody wants to emphasize the negative, especially not when it could cost them paying guests. Which is all by way of saying, maybe some of those folksy travelers' tales you read online are only as reliable as the people who wrote them.
"You have to take these reviews with a grain of salt," said Elliott. "And you really got to do your homework. Go to a lot of different sites, call a travel agent, call a friend who stayed there and ask. That's what I would do."