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.
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.
"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.
Many 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.
What 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.
I don't know how many of you have a subscription over at Travel Mole. If you do, you can click the link to see the article I'm Blogging about today. If you do not have a subscription, I'm pasting the entire post below so you can read it. I've provided the URL and the author's name.
GeoVisions' view about online reviews is that the current system doesn't work. We have good ones and bad ones. Over on GoOverseas we rate a 95%. On AbroadReviews we rank 7.2 out of 10. But do online reviews, the way they exist today, really provide unbiased information about a program, from a verified participant? We don't think so.
It is our feeling that these sites exist mainly to make money. This is done by creating links to their review sites (today's Internet currency), and by driving traffic to the site so they can charge more for listing services and ads. And, in one case, AbroadReviews is charging organizations who send volunteers abroad an annual fee of $500 to be able to refute the online reviews. If GeoVisions pays a fee, we can get the review deleted or we can refute the review. If we don't pay, it has to stay just the way it is. It is impossible not to feel "fleeced down" by something like that.
Seriously? Do you really want to trust those reviews? If you're wanting information about what program to go on, don't you want something from a real participant that's recent, verified that the reviewer actually participated?
This is a tough process to present to consumers in only one or two posts. So I'm devoting the next five posts to explain why GeoVisions a hard stand against online reviews as they exist today. And some of you will think it's because we don't want negative reviews. You would be right about that. We want "fair and balanced" reviews where the reviewer is verified to have participated on the program and actually wrote the review. And that the review is no older than 6 months...because a lot can change at a project in 6 months.
Here is what we consider to be a great review template:
What is your name?
What is your email address?
What company did you go with to vounteer abroad?
What was the specific program/country?
When did you go?
(The reviewer at this point will be told the company they went with will verify they were a participant and that no reviews can be older than six months. At six months, the review is automatically removed from the site.)
Leave your review of the program.
Is this a sustainable project and does it have a positive impact on the host community?
Then the volunteer abroad company will verify the participant and the review will be automatically posted.
Company note: This is a spot reserved for the organization to comment. If the review is bad, it provides an area so the organization can explain what they are doing to do a better job, list the improvements, etc.
CHANGES: The original reviewer can change the review anytime. Negative reviews can be changed to a higher review later on, for example. This encourages both the organization and the volunteer to actually communicate for the good of the whole.
And...do people who trash organizations online really want a resolution to their pain? Or do they just want to trash a company because they're hurt or disappointed or simply mean-spirited? Are those the reviews you really want to read just before you shell out thousands of dollars? Or do you want to read the "real-deal?" A verified review that is recent and posted to help others make a decision.
Here is the Travel Mole Blog post as it appeared yesterday online. The New York Times did some research into online reviews, and we are posting the results of that research on Monday. In the meantime, we think consumers who want to volunteer or teach abroad, and who rely upon reviews would appreciate this post:
Reaction to controversial TripAdvisor reviews: do it ourselves
It’s getting to be “review turnabout time” as more tourist-oriented providers attempt to dilute the influence of TripAdvisor in an effort to take more control of reviews. Two examples:
---Lodging Interactive and Social Media Marketing Agency announced their own “Guest Review System” designed for hotels, restaurants and spas.
---In a move that could be emulated by others, Starwood announced it is launching its own first-ever review site that is in-house.
“The Guest Review System enables hospitality companies to manage and display consumer reviews on their own websites and blogs,” says a press release.
Founder and President DJ Vallauri said:
“The time has come for hotels to take control of their guest reviews and to stop sending potential guests to third party review web sites where they may never return or worse, book a competitor’s property.”
He said market research supports the fact that over 75 percent of online travel buyers who consider consumer reviews prior to making an online purchase.
“This trend is not going away and hoteliers have told us they need more control over the guest review process,” he said
The Guest Review System (www.GuestReviewSystem.com) is a web based review management system that empowers hotels to collect their own guest reviews and post management responses on their web sites, he said.
The system lets consumers post their comments and score their hotel experiences based on service attributes.
Additionally, consumers can share their guest reviews on Facebook and their network of friends. Hotels are notified in real-time of new guest reviews and have the ability to validate guest stay information before reviews are posted on their website, says the new site.
“The New York Times recently reported on individuals and offshore companies established to post fake reviews…in some cases negative reviews about competitors, it’s just getting out of hand,” said Vallauri.
The company says its service is low-cost and it offers a free trial.
In the case of Starwood, the chain’s Sheraton, Westin, W and other Starwood properties can assess their stay directly on the chain’s web sites.
Anyone including non-hotel guests will be able to read the reviews and share them via social media channels, such as Facebook and Twitter.
None of Starwood's biggest rivals such as Marriott and Hilton have attempted to post customer reviews. “Doing so, after all, could be risky if reviewers expose weak points, such as a nasty hotel staffer, broken air conditioning unit or inadequate Wi-Fi connection,” writes USA Today.
By bypassing the world’s most popular review site, TripAdvisor, Starwood is counting on its repeat customers to be satisfied. Under their review system, ratings will only be published after a writer’s stay has been checked and validated.
A spokesperson says that is no problem because of the chain’s confidence in its product.
He said any complaints will be followed up at individual properties.
By David Wilkening
This guest Blog post on traveling abroad on the cheap was written by Chris Davis, an avid world traveler. Although he has traveled the world on very little money, the unique experiences are his riches.
"Go not where the path may lead but make your own path and leave a trail."
Surely we've all read this little motivational snippet, if not on a guidance counselor's wall then perhaps on a sticker attached to the bumper of a 1980's model Volvo. For the backpackers of the world it's our unofficial creed, not for any altruistic reason, but rather it is usually the cheaper alternative to conventional methods of travel. In my two years vagabonding and volunteering abroad around the globe I've compiled an exhaustive list of ways I have gone from point A to point B, some of them rather mundane and uneventful, and the others anything but. When your legs and back are worn out from the rigors of traversing seemingly endless expanses of open road, any opportunities to grant those workhorse body parts a reprieve you don't pass up. This strategy has provided me with the chance to bum a ride on the following: a rickshaw, llama, motorcycle sidecar, lorry, jet ski, fishing trawler, abandon rollerblades, snowmobile, rock band tour bus, elephant, M.A.S.H style helicopter and my favorite, a parking enforcement vehicle.
When you live out of a backpack, your ability to improvise becomes your greatest asset. The second most important thing you can do is learn how to pump the locals for information. It doesn't matter how good or up to date your travel book is, as you discover that the best kept secrets are called that for a reason, and no one is going to put those types of nuggets in print so that the masses can ruin them. It also doesn't matter how good your people skills are because at some point or another, you are going to get "taken" by the con-men and grifters that prey on the gullible and trusting. It may be something as simple as getting shortchanged by a street vendor (imagine trying to calculate a handful of foreign currency that doesn't even have numbers) or something major like stashing your bag in what looks like a reputable locker kiosk at a train station. If you ask me, it is a small price to pay for the rewards that come from interacting with the genuine articles. I've been privy to midnight tours of ancient ruins not made available to the public, walking through corridors when everyone else is relegated to admiring from a distance. Following the right leads will let you paraglide off the Pyrenees in an otherwise protected part of Spain's National Parks. For the "foodies" in the audience, there is no better way to get a taste of local cuisine than being invited to a wedding or dining with the staff of a restaurant after they are closed. For music buffs like myself, watching the Vienna Philharmonic sharpen their performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is a memory that I'm sure will be the fading light on my deathbed. To think I never would have gotten to experience any of those things if I hadn't gone against my better judgment makes me pause, as balancing adventure seeking with personal safety is never easy, but you do get better at it as time goes on.
Getting off the beaten path means more than just avoiding the tourist pop culture carnival in favor of more unique interplay, it also provides the traveler with a chance to see the less visible part of a country. Anyone can Google images of Machu Picchu and what you get back will be what you can take with your own camera on a hike up to that famous Inca Trail hotspot. So few take the extra hour to tackle the more treacherous climb up Huayna Picchu, which will reward its conquerers with stunning views of the Andes and provide you with a photo op that will make you the envy of your less grizzled travel companions. When you think of Italy, a slide show of sorts probably runs through your mind as images of the leaning tower of Pisa, the Colosseum, canals of Venice and the statue of David scroll by. While there is certainly gratification in seeing these impressive human achievements in living color, I wouldn't trade it for the weeks I spent roaming the coastline of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. Contrary to popular belief, Greece does not have a monopoly on scenic, white washed cliff side villas, as a stroll through the Apulian city of Ostuni will reveal. After you have soaked in that bit of paradise, continue westward towards the region of Calabria to see what Tropea and Scilla have to offer you by means of inspiring panoramas. If you find yourself not wanting to leave, you aren't alone. Just file it away in the folder marked ,"Possible Retirement Locations." Seeing as how I have trumpeted the virtues of straying off the path, it's only fair that I offer you some warning of where venturing off the trail will probably get you into trouble. There are the obvious locals such as anywhere the overnight temperatures can only be recorded with instruments that use industrial grade antifreeze. Any of the six Axis of Evil countries qualify if you happen to find yourself near one of their borders, and unless you are a Sadist, there really is nothing of interest to risk your neck over. The Great Australian Outback still has large areas of uncharted terrain and it will most likely stay that way; do not give into the temptation to try out your novice surveying skills. The unfortunate aftermath of the Vietnam war continues to leave its mark on unsuspecting Cambodians by way of land mines. Heed the warnings and proceed with caution.
Procrastination is the enemy of potential vagabonders and "next year" is the battle cry of the adventureless. Putting your life on hold for a month or two isn't going to hurt, I promise, and you may just find that upon your return, the life you knew wasn't really worth living. Go with a group, go with a partner, go solo...just go! And remember, when you come to a split in the woods, choose the path less taken.
Here in our Guilford, CT office we look out onto a town Green that was established in 1639. Same Green, same foot paths for 362 years. At the North end sits the traditional New England white church with the clock tower and required bell that tolls at Noon. On the other 3 sides of our Green sit buildings dating back to the 1700s. Our office is in a building built in 1750. We are surrounded by rich history. All of us here are deeply attached to this place and we feel proud to be here.
We have four rooms in our office...and I wish every volunteer and teacher could visit us. I'll make a video one of these days. In these four offices are 7 desks and a conference table. And on top of each and every desk is a stunning Apple iMac. On 3 of the desks sit iPhones. 1 iPad. And we have 3 MacBook Pros and 2 MacBook Airs. We are an all-Apple office.
I bought my first Macintosh computer in 1984. I drank the kool-aid then, and I've been drinking it ever since. Our staff loves their Apple devices and some of them have bought Apple for their homes, having used them at GeoVisions.
I'm sorry Steve Jobs died, and at such a young age. But more than that, I'm glad he lived.
GeoVisions invested in Apple to the point that we only use their equipment. But we also learned something else from our association with Apple's products. Their vision.
It is no secret, our global financial condition puts a strain on business growth. The money people have to spend to volunteer or teach abroad is less each month. We rely heavily on host families abroad, and times are tough for them also. They might have an extra room and a desire to host. But do they have the extra cash to feed another person for 3 months? It's harder all the time.
I see a few of our competitors try to fix things by lowering their prices. I was at a meeting in Barcelona, Spain a few weeks ago and talked to some people from volunteer projects in South Africa and in Asia who have been told to lower their fees and accept more volunteeers or these big guys said they would stop sending volunteers to them. That's shameful.
Others are cutting costs and downsizing to cope with our global economy. In my opinion, what this does is promote fear at work and has a negative impact on customer service.
At GeoVisions, we have always used Apple technology and Steve Jobs quotes to help guide us to the forefront of creativity. When Apple was struggling, Steve Jobs remarked, "The cure for Apple is not cost-cutting. The cure for Apple is to innovate its way out of its current predicament.”
We have not cut our prices, we raised them to make sure we can pay all of our bills. We have not cut our staff. We hired more so we can deliver stellar customer service. We also added amazing projects in Israel, Italy and we came up with how to get spending money for some of our Conversation Corps members in Spain, and invented the most unique Conversation Partner program in France...something no one can do without us.
Steve Jobs was right. Innovate your way out. Come up with inspiring ideas that make people say, "Wow!" We want people to look at what we have to offer the world and try to figure out how they can be a part of it. Do we strong-arm our overseas partners? No! We provide them better service, screened applicants, on-time payments, excited and committed volunteers. We deliver remarkable volunteers and teachers. We offer innovative and unique programming. We will continue to invest in Apple products, and we will continue to innovate our way to number one.
In a May 25, 1993 Wall Street Journal interview, Steve Jobs said something I'll never forget. It has stayed with me and guided me each day. "Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me.”
Our program, Health and Wellness in Peru, is really about as good as it gets if you're wanting to volunteer on a medical project. All of GeoVisions' medical volunteer projects are hands-on, making them perfect for nursing and medical students.
This program is a great hands-on opportunity to work toward improving health care in Lima or Cusco, Peru. Our volunteers work directly with local Peruvians who have little access to health care. GeoVisions provides ample opportunity to work with locals of various age groups to bring adequate health care, intervention and prevention to the people these clinics serve.
Alex Cabble is a GeoVisions volunteer onsite right now. She is documenting her trip on Tumblr with her Blog, Across The Equator. Here is an excerpt from a recent post: "Last week I was in Topico and I was able to clean a wound on a woman’s toe by myself! I also talked to a man who was getting stitches on his arm after a dog bit him about New York for a while! Topico was interesting and I definitely had more of a hands on experience there. It was nice to talk to some of the patients and I liked seeing all of the babies and helping to break their fevers. The kids here are sooo adorable!"
Alex writes about other hands-on cases she has had recently, like "my first patient was an older woman who didn’t have a toenail on her big toe." And, "a 7 year old boy who fell and had a gash right above his left eyebrow. The gash, at its widest, was probably about the size of a dime and went pretty deep. He ended up getting stitches inside the gash and then stitches on the outside to hold it together." Alex' day ended here, "another patient was a 10 month old baby that had a fever. I took her temperature and it was 38.9 degrees C when the normal temp is 37 degrees C. We put some wet towels on her to bring down the temperature and by the time that I left, it was normal again!"
Be sure to read her Blog for more details and she has included a lot of photos as well.
Oh…and as I prepared this Blog to go live, we received this email from Alex' friend Kelsy who is also on the same program:
"Just checking in to say hi - everything here has been absolutely amazing so far! Alex and I have been doing great, our host family is wonderful, and the clinic has been so great. I worked in gynecology and obstetrics the first two weeks which was really neat - I got to see a few live births too so that was cool. I'm working in the pharmacy now which is good, because I wasn't sure if I'd be able to get there at all. Our Spanish is improving tremendously. The ruins and views here are so incredible. We just went to Machu Picchu yesterday, which was amazing, and we've also been to Ollantaytambo, Pisaq, Saqsayhuaman, Salineras, Maras, and Moray. The night life in Cusco is a blast too. We're both learning lots of salsa! Overall, everything's been wonderful and I would definitely have to say I've been having the time of my life. Learning tons, and having a blast too!"
GeoVisions founded the Conversation Corps, and specializes in medical volunteer projects for the traditional volunteer abroad program.
Go to Italy, live with a family and help them with their conversational English skills. Sounds pretty straight forward. Until you find out the family you're living with has a child that is very famous and very successful. And...you're his English tutor.
Lorenzo Baldassarri is a young Italian kid who just happens to race motor bikes. He won the 2011 Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup. In this photo, Lorenzo is the young man in the front, or if you can't tell, he is 2nd from the left.
Our Tutor, Stacy Cerullo, is living with the Baldassarri family and tutoring Lorenzo in his spare time. After watching the video below, we can see he'll use his English accepting many trophies!
In the video below, watch bike number 7 and look for Lorenzo's acceptance speech at the end if you want to fast forward. Nicely done Lorenzo and nicely done Stacy!
GeoVisions founded the Conversation Corps, and we followed that up with Conversation Partner for more independently minded travelers. But when you have a global reputation of founding a program as significant as the Conversation Corps, families (normal, rich and yeah...famous) naturally navigate to the organization with the vision that nothing really substantial can change for the better unless there is some way to communicate with each other.
We're proud of Lorenzo and his family. And we're proud of our Conversation Corps tutor, Stacy. We can't place all of our tutors in the 21 countries where we have members of the Corps with the rich and famous...but over the last 6 years that we've offered this program we can say that the families who approach us for tutors are the very best families our planet has to offer. And the change that happens when two cultures learn to communicate is endless.