Between Christmas and New Year, operators received emails, which have been seen by The Morning Advertiser (MA), from a company called Reviewsta urging them to sign up to a programme where “bespoke reviews” are created by writers for TripAdvisor, Google and Facebook based on their experiences of the business.
The email went on to say: “If you have consistent, positive and a volume of reviews it will result in a progressive ranking improvement [of your business]. If you haven’t seen a positive ranking improvement we offer a 100% money back guarantee.
“We have never ever had even one review removed. We use 100% safe techniques with our advanced system that will never harm your profiles or business.”
Reviewsta continued with claims that positive “safe” reviews can improve a business; protect against angry customers, ex-members of staff, sabotage from competitors and platform deletion. The email also said the company could increase rankings on review platforms, which would result in higher exposure and footfall as well as being able to increase business revenues “often by 20 times your initial investment”.
Reviewsta’s website also suggests that not having a review management system in place can damage a business, stating: “Without brand protection you are at risk of angry ex-employees, unhappy customers, sabotage from competitors and platform deletion.”
When MA tried to order a package, there were no products available on Reviewsta’s website, which has since been taken down. A spokesman from Reviewsta told MA the email to operators was sent by a third party marketing provider “in error and not by ourselves”.
The spokesman continued: “The provider did not understand our brand protection services in question and not once has Reviewsta written or posted even one review. There is no criticism to defend.”
When asked about the literature on Reviewsta’s website, which claimed of increased revenues and better ratings, the spokesman added: “The information on the site was extremely limited and innacurate and did not go into detail about our planned reputation management services. This [website] was also created by the same third party that sent the email previously referred to.
“The [Reviewsta] service was actually to analyse a number of client reviews, provide feedback for improvements, which through implementation, would improve the establishments practices for them to naturally receive better reviews over time from their real customers."
‘Remove the site’
He continued: “The miscommunication from the third party in both the email and website has at this point left us no choice to remove the site all together.”
Operators who received the email, included David Bentley, owner of the Old Bowling Green in Winster, near Matlock, in Derbyshire, who was “stunned” at being contacted about the offer. “I know of reviews of products resulting in the articles being supplied free-of-charge for a five-star review, but this is so blatant it beggars belief,” he said.
“I was not aware of such blatant services being offered professionally – clearly I’m naive. I am aware of groups of people – families and friends – concocting fake reviews both praising and condemning a business, which we have been the target of once, but not that such a professional service was available… In fact, I am appalled that such a service is offered or finds businesses corrupt enough to consider using it,” continued Bentley.
“This type of service undermines the whole system of reviews and invalidates genuine ones. Like many others, we ourselves use reviews to rate places we plan to stay, and like many others we discard the absolutely glowing and extremely condemning reviews as biased and then make our decision on the main body of them. How can such a service be legal when it is clearly designed to misrepresent and pervert the truth?”
Such practices, though, may not be legal, with a recent case in Italy seeing one man jailed. In the case, which was the first of its kind last year, the owner of Italian company PromoSalento was found guilty of fraud for using a false identity to write fake reviews.
PromoSalento’s owner was handed a nine-month prison sentence and told to pay thousands of pounds in costs and damages for selling fake review packages to hospitality businesses in Italy.
What to do if you’re contacted by a paid-review provider
Gavin Greene, manager for industry strategy and outreach at TripAdvisor advised: “Report it to us. The vast majority of honest, hard-working business owners want a level playing field on TripAdvisor, just as we do. Paid review companies are a threat to that.
“It is common for these companies to solicit business directly from hotels and restaurants, so any information a business owner is able to share with us, no matter how small, can really help our investigations. Anyone can report a paid review company to us via firstname.lastname@example.org.”
This was one of the first times paid review fraud – when companies or individuals sell fake reviews to business owners – has resulted in a criminal conviction.
In a statement at the time, TripAdvisor, which has been repeatedly criticised by pub operators in the UK for not cracking down on unfair reviews, said it supported the conviction.
When asked about review companies such as Reviewsta, Gavin Greene, manager for industry strategy and outreach at TripAdvisor, said: “Unfortunately, there are some individuals and/or companies such as Reviewsta that try to exploit hospitality business owners by soliciting money in exchange for fake reviews.
“These companies often masquerade as legitimate businesses and they make various false promises about what their services deliver. Their main claim is that they can boost a hospitality business’s ranking on TripAdvisor with positive 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.”
TripAdvisor considers paid reviews as an illegal significant threat, so much so the technology company has a team of investigators working around the clock to catch the companies and prevent them from operating on its site.
“We also work with regulators and law enforcement agencies around the world to successfully prosecute some of the worst offenders. In many countries, both the buying and selling of reviews is illegal, and if caught, paid reviewers can be sentenced to time in prison,” continued Greene.
‘Catch paid reviews’
“We catch paid reviews using a combination of our tracking system, which identifies suspicious review activity, and a dedicated team of investigators who pursue the companies and individuals that attempt to sell them. In fact, as a result of the team’s efforts, TripAdvisor has put a stop to the activity of over 60 different paid review companies around the world.”
A Competition Markets Authority (CMA) spokesperson said: “People must be able to trust the reviews they read online – they can significantly influence buying decisions, so it’s important they are genuine.
“The CMA has taken a number of enforcement cases in this area– including action to tackle fake reviews.
“We will continue to work closely with other enforcement agencies and use any information provided from the public or businesses such as TripAdvisor to inform our work in the future.”
Meanwhile, in a poll of MA readers, 87% of those asked said they would not pay for fake positive reviews about their businesses, 10% claimed they would and 3% were unsure.
One of those firmly against the use of paid-for reviews is Heath Ball, licensee of the Red Lion & Sun, in Highgate, London, who, after receiving an email from Reviewsta, said the practice should be made illegal since customers would undoubtedly “feel cheated”.
Although Ball hasn’t heard of any operators taking companies up on paid reviews, he suspects there are pubs out there doing it. “I’d never do it, regardless of what I think of review platforms like TripAdvisor,” said Ball, who is also outspoken about the unfair situations many operators are put in by review sites, “but there will be operators out there that do [pay for reviews]”.
Although the practice of paid reviews is not a new one, it appears to be rearing its head more regularly as pub operators are targeted by agencies offering them services many deem to underhand and unfair. But, as recent cases prove, the law is on the side of the victims, while technology companies like TripAdvisor will continue to invest in protecting their users from such deviance.
It is clear a system must be put in place to protect those operating fairly on review sites, as operators such as Bentley consider the platforms an essential part of business.
Pubs such as the Old Bowling Green do not pay for advertising and rely on word-of-mouth as well as review sites to encourage business. “Businesses like ours that dismiss the power of TripAdvisor do so at their peril,” he said.
“We keep a close record of the source of our business and are small enough to be able to chat to our customers. We know how important the reviews are, although we do not canvass for them as some pubs do.”
From: (addresses removed)
Date: 29 Dec 2018 13:06
Subject: Reviews Writing Service
To: (addresses removed)
We specialize (sic) in Reviews for the Restaurants and Hotels industry.
We provide bespoke Reviews, created by our writers based on their experience of your establishment for Trip Advisor, Google and Facebook.
If you have consistent, positive and a volume of reviews it will result in a progressive ranking improvement.
If you haven’t seen a positive ranking improvement we offer a 100% money back Guarantee.
We have NEVER ever had even one review removed. We use 100% safe techniques by our advanced system that will never harm your profiles or business.
How can consistent, positive safe reviews improve your business?
- 1)Protect yourself from angry customers, ex members of staff, Sabotage from competitors and platform deletion.
- 2)Increase your ranking on Review Platforms resulting in higher exposure and more footfall
- 3)Increase in business revenue (Often 20x your initial investment)
What do we charge?
We have an easy and secure ordering system through our online Review store which you can buy direct today here:-
Our campaigns are priced per month and assigned to an account manager who will personally look after your campaign, reporting your ranking improvement every month.
TripAdvisor, Google and Facebook Packages:-
- 1 month – 24 Dripfed Bespoke Reviews, tailored to your business (100 - 200 words each) - £150
- 3 months – 72 Dripfed Bespoke Reviews, tailored to your business (100 - 200 words each) - £300
- 6 months – 144 Dripfed Bespoke Reviews, tailored to your business (100 - 200 words each) - £475
- 12 months – 288 Dripfed Bespoke Reviews, tailored to your business (100 - 200 words each) - £840
We also offer multi site discounts if you have more than 1 establishment. For that, please request a tailored quote on your requirements.
If you want to start receiving Reviews to your platforms within 24 Hours we are the solution for you.
Simply buy your campaign through our online Review shop and we will be in touch very shortly to get all the information we need to write and start posting reviews. If you wish to discuss our process further or have specific requirements please don’t hesitate to get in touch by responding to this email or by telephone.
We look forward to hearing from you shortly.
The Reviewsta Team