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Beware of Travel Ads That Seem Too Good to Be True

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By Victor Block

The advertisement for a Caribbean hotel touts "ocean view," and there is -- for guests who climb to a rooftop terrace and peer far into the distance. A restaurant website is replete with rave reviews that give no hint they were written by people who were paid for their positive ratings. The photograph shows people enjoying a nearly deserted beach that, in reality, is usually is packed with other sunbathers.

When it comes to making travel plans, whether you're picking a destination, place to stay or eat, or handling other arrangements it's wise to keep in mind that tried-and-true adage, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

While the majority of travel-related ads and reviews are legitimate, a surprising number aren't. Research by the University of Illinois and BestSEOCompanies.com, a firm that helps businesses select the best search engine optimization vendors, suggests that as many as 20% to 40% of online reviews are fake.

In fact, there's an entire mini-industry consisting of so-called "review farms" that will -- for pay -- furnish positive write-ups and recommendations for companies, including some in the travel field.

A Google search makes clear how prevalent this practice is. Among sources that pop up are "How to Buy Reviews," "Buy Positive Reviews Online" and "Buy Bulk Reviews."

 

This is important to know because many people depend upon reviews and advertisements in making travel, restaurant and other decisions. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 40% of people "always" or "almost always" look at online reviews, and more than 80 percent do so at least "sometimes."

One aspect of those evaluations is star ratings, which many people use as a guide in selecting hotels, restaurants and other businesses that they assume have been given high grades by customers. While that's true in most cases, it's also true that some high-star ratings might be bogus.

Experts note that the more reviewers who have provided stars, the less likely it is that they have been manipulated. Myles Anderson, founder of the business marketing firm BrightLocal, says the more the merrier when it comes to the number of stars given to a business. He explains that it is harder and more costly to influence a rating when there's a relatively large number of critics.

Written reviews can be even more important -- and impactful -- because they have the added influence of advice from people who have stayed at a hotel, dined at a restaurant, sailed on a cruise ship or visited a destination. Or have they? Here are a few things to look out for.

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