Anyone who has traveled in the past few years is probably familiar with TripAdvisor, the internet’s main source of reviews on anything from restaurants to museums. It’s the candid, in-depth analysis offered by passionate travelers looking to help others that makes the site such a useful tool for those who can’t control their wanderlust.
But an unfathomable stunt from Vice writer Oobah Butler is raising questions about how legitimate those posts really are—and the power of fake reviews.
At a time when the internet has been rocked by fake news, Butler took on a remarkable quest to see if he could trick TripAdvisor. Inspired by his previous job where he was paid £10 to write fake TripAdvisor posts, Butler transformed his ordinary South London shed into the “The Shed at Dulwich,” one of the hottest restaurants in London.
— Jamie Clifton (@jamie_clifton) December 6, 2017
Except the shed was never a restaurant. Living a double life online, the tiny backyard building was given its own site, professional photos that made it look like a fine-dining establishment, and a fake menu, snobby enough to make it appear exclusive. Mouth-watering photos were staged like real food when they were actually made from inedible substances like shaving cream, bleach disks, and Butler’s own foot.
On top of that, Butler wrote dozens of fake five-star reviews to get the buzz started.
Six months later, the fake restaurant was ranked the top restaurant in London on one of the internet’s most trusted websites. Butler’s phone was ringing off the hook with people wanting to make reservations. They were told the place was booked months in advance.
If it all seems too bizarre to be true, you can read the full story over at Vice.
The tale raises serious concerns about how TripAdvisor deals with fake reviews. But the company told the Daily Dot it doesn’t believe Butler’s case is a practical example of someone exploiting its site.
“Generally, the only people who create fake restaurant listings are journalists in misguided attempts to test us,” a spokesperson wrote in an email. “As there is no incentive for anyone in the real world to create a fake restaurant, it is not a problem we experience with our regular community—therefore this ‘test’ is not a real-world example.”
The spokesperson said TripAdvisor’s “content specialists” are focused on catching fraudsters who try to trick the system to manipulate the rankings of real businesses. The company said it uses modeling of what “normal” behavior looks like to find fake reviews.
“This is why the distinction between attempted fraud by a real business, as opposed to attempted fraud for a non-existent business, is important,” a spokesperson for TripAdvisor said. “Real businesses, whether they try to game our system or not, have a footfall of genuine customers coming through the door and those customers contribute to the review patterns we would expect to see. Spotting the difference between a business’ genuine customer reviews and its fake reviews is one of the ways we catch fraud. If a business does not exist at all, then clearly those patterns are going to differ from normal models of activity.”
The statement seems to suggest TripAdvisor has a harder time moderating when businesses don’t have any legitimate reviews, like “The Shed at Dulwich.”
Despite this, the company says Butler’s masterful creation was on its radar “for some time,” claiming it removed many fake reviews and lowered its ranking prior to deleting it altogether when it was discovered to be fraudulent.
“From the moment our system identified a suspicious pattern of reviews, it was only a matter of time before we caught and shut down this listing,” the spokesperson said.
Still, that didn’t happen before the shed serving a reporter’s foot became one of the most desired restaurants in England’s capital.