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Participant Stories

Did You Volunteer Abroad? Are You Sure?

Posted by Randy LeGrant | Oct 31, 2011 9:27:00 AM

On October 27, USA Today reported that a $10 million lawsuit has been filed against TripAdvisor"Our complaint is that TripAdvisor went too far. Instead of just reporting what people said, they made a flat-out statement that the hotel was the dirtiest," the Grand Resort Hotel's attorney, Sidney Gilreath, told USA TODAY.

"Are the reviews from guests, or from former employees? We're going to look behind the curtain to find out," said Gilreath.

Volunteer Verification
The biggest question out there is, who verifies the reviewer is a traveler?  I spoke with two online review sites after our first post on this subject.  When I mentioned SPG's decision to come out with their own online review system, both owners of the online review sites told me no one will believe them, since SPG would post only the "good" reviews and leave the bad ones out.

Verified seal"How do you verify that the reviewer traveled on that program or didn't receive a gratuity for a good review," I asked?  "We don't," was the reply from both.

And that is all SPG is saying, and their motivation behind their own online review system.  SPG is saying they can easily verify if the reviewer stayed with them or not.  And if they did, and if the review is positive or negative, they will post the review.

Until online review sites come up with a verification of the writer, any review can be termed a fake.  Not one of the online review sites for volunteer abroad publishes an email address or a verification that this person actually participated on the program and the reviewer was not compensated in anyway.  If I wanted to teach my 13-year old daughter how to lie, she could go online and write a review about one of our programs.  No one would ever know.  She can write glowing remarks and she can pick a funny online name, and the review us up and it sticks.

Spotting fake reviewsMany Online Reviews Are Fake
On October 27, the New York Times reported that "As online retailers increasingly depend on reviews as a sales tool, an industry of fibbers and promoters has sprung up to buy and sell raves for a pittance."

“For $5, I will submit two great reviews for your business,” offered one entrepreneur on the help-for-hire site Fiverr, one of a multitude of similar pitches. On another forum, Digital Point, a poster wrote, “I will pay for positive feedback on TripAdvisor.” A Craigslist post proposed this: “If you have an active Yelp account and would like to make very easy money please respond.”

Sandra Parker, a freelance writer who was hired by a review factory this spring to pump out Amazon reviews for $10 each, said her instructions were simple. “We were not asked to provide a five-star review, but would be asked to turn down an assignment if we could not give one,” said Ms. Parker, whose brief notices for a dozen memoirs are stuffed with superlatives like “a must-read” and “a lifetime’s worth of wisdom.”

The problem is serious enough that researchers at Cornell University are developing an algorithm to detect fake reviews.  Had the two owners of online review sites I spoke to heard about this?  "No."  The Cornell researchers tackled what they call deceptive opinion spam by commissioning freelance writers on Mechanical Turk, an Amazon-owned marketplace for workers, to produce 400 positive but fake reviews of Chicago hotels. Then they mixed in 400 positive TripAdvisor reviews that they believed were genuine, and asked three human judges to tell them apart. They could not.

Getting paid to write a good reviewWhat Would You Pay For A Great Review?
Then, when the online review companies finally figure out how to verify the traveler as a "real" traveler on the program, something they may never do but we can always hope…there is the issue of the organization paying for the review.  One owner confided that he knows one volunteer abroad sender pays $25 for each great review.  Still, he publishes those reviews.

Trevor J. Pinch, a sociologist at Cornell, found in his research that just about all the top reviewers in his study said they got free books and other material from publishers and others by soliciting good notices on Amazon.com.

If you run a review site and you don't allow reviewers to remove their review, after they have had time to think about it, or you don't allow reviewers to change their review after they have heard from the organization, then what you have is organizations peppering the system with fake reviews.  The research proves it, and if you take the time to read the reviews, you can spot them.  Professor Pinch concludes, "A courteous response to a negative review can persuade the reviewer to change their reviews from two to three or four stars,” said Main Street’s chief executive, Andrew Allison. “That’s one of the highest victories a local business can aspire to with respect to their critics.”  Unfortunately, the current list of online review sites for volunteer abroad does not allow this.

In Our Next Post...
On Thursday I'm going to provide you with two tools:  One, I'm going to share details with you from reviewers who posted fake reviews and others who were paid to post fake reviews.  Two, I'm going to give you a ton of links to read if you have any interest at all in this subject, or if you would like to join us in pointing out that fake reviews do little to help consumers and the guys who own online review companies do nothing to help consumers make the right choices if they have no way to verify that the reviewer is a former traveler with the company they are reviewing and they received no gratuity at all for the positive review.

Written by Randy LeGrant

Randy is the Executive Director of the GeoVisions Foundation. He has spent the last 44 years managing organizations that send people abroad on cultural and educational exchanges.

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