GeoVisions Blog

Cow Patty To Travel Patty - The Awards

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Mon, Dec 16, 2013

larry david at knicks gameSo what else is new?  I’m going to buck the system. This time of year my Travel Blog buddies are coming up with “travel resolutions for 2014” and making lists of the “hottest travel destinations for 2014.”  I wanted to come up with something different.  I prefer writing in the theme of “bah-humbug” and just be the Larry David curmudgeon of travel in this post today.

I’m from Oklahoma originally. Growing up I saw a lot of “cow patties” in our pastures. There are even “cow patty throwing contests” where I come from. So what could be better than harking back to my roots and hosting the Travel Patty awards?  You know, the awards for travel stuff that just doesn't make sense to me.  Sometimes I read Travel Blogs and think if someone really thought about it, they wouldn't have done that, said that, written that, or been there, done that.

Travel Patties. Yeah. It’s an award I’m going to give out annually now. Those Travel Abroad, Volunteer Abroad, Teach Abroad activities that annoy the “patty” out of me.  The award is a cowboy boot fresh with cow patty smeared all over it.  And those of you in the big city ... a cow patty is not hamburger.

In all honesty and with full transparency, I got this idea from Travel Blog Writer Richard Reid over at his amazing site, Reid On Travel. (I lived in Oklahoma ... he lives in Oklahoma.)  He’s giving out the annual Travel Jail awards. So the basic idea is Richard’s. The Travel Patties?  Well, their mine.  But after this post, be sure to go over and read Richard's Travel Jail Awards.

So here we go.

Cow Patty Award Number 1There’s a guy out on the west coast of the US that has written a few books, holds an annual conference getting folks all riled up about setting their own rules and changing the world. He writes that he wants to visit every country in the world ... he has only a few to go, actually. That would be great if he did anything while he was there for 24 hours … but he's more into a simple quest rather than doing something useful for the world. You, Dude, get my first Travel Patty. Thank you for making travel a contest of country counting. You’ve just ruined it for those of us who really want to have a relationship with where we travel.

OK.  I'm likin' this.  Feels good.

Travel Patty Award 2This would not be a real Travel Patty award post without giving one to all those Volunteer Abroad Review sites and the "aggregator" sites that let consumers review their so-called experiences. You are the bottom feeders of our industry. You do nothing for consumers with your reviews, although each of you have tried to convince yourselves that you do. If you had one shred of honesty, you would admit that you push reviews on your site for the traffic rankings on Alexa.  The result of the Internet space you occupy promotes fake reviews, and reviews by people who don’t have the courage to list their real names and the underlying purpose of their review.  There is one site among you in particular who accepts payment from travel organizations that proposes to inoculate them from negative reviews. All of you know who it is, and not one of you has the courage to clean up your cumulative act.  All of you share this Travel Patty.

[ I always want to leave something in a post that helps other people.  So that no one can complain that I am against all review sites, here is the only travel review site on planet earth that helps people who truly want to travel.  Triptease.  That's it ... give it a try.  First you have to upload an awesome photo of what it is you're reviewing.  It isn’t about fake reviews from company owners and staff, or trashing a company because they didn’t give you a refund … it’s a site where intelligent people upload a stunning photo from their travels, write about it, and rank the hotel, restaurant or location. Then, when I go to Morocco … I can add the photos and reviews to my own travel itinerary. Who’d have thunk it? A review company that actually focuses on travelers and travel. Raving about it? The BBC, Mashable, and Vanity Fair. The rest of you guys? I'm sorry you think you’re accomplishing anything positive with your reviews. You do the same thing as each other.  You don't practice any creativity at all.  Try a review site that helps people. It's the industry you seemingly work in.  Give it a shot. I tested Triptease, and here is my entry.]

Man ... that felt better than a dietary cleanse.

dirty boots

Volunteer Abroad projects that involve orphans. HEY! People zoo keepers:  Stop trotting out the kids to get funding and pull on the heart strings of volunteers to put butts in seats. If you have to rely on orphans to get volunteers to go abroad, you need to read Dante’s Inferno and think of it as non-fiction, and believe the 8th Circle awaits you. This Travel Patty is for you.

 

 

Travel Patty Award 4The Professional Travel Bloggers Association. Part of their mission is to “legitimize travel blogging as a business.” Now, I'm all for associations.  We belong to 2 or 3.  But if you need an association to legitimize what you’re doing, you need to rethink what you’re doing. Here's your Travel Patty.

 

 

Travel Patty award 5Volunteer Abroad organization web sites that over use "Travel for a Change," "Change the world," "Travel with a purpose." To me they read like over-used slogans.  Here's something to talk about with your Director of Internet Marketing:  Slogans are about you.  Stories are about your volunteers.  Your volunteers know that. Here's the boot.

 

smiling cow

If you're upset or offended and want to debate anything I've written ... go ahead and leave a comment below.  I promise to reply.  And if anyone has other nominations the Travel Patty committee should consider ... please feel free to leave them in the Comments area below.

All of us here at GeoVisions wish you a Happy New Year and we hope 2013 was kind to you and yours.  We are getting a new website in 2014 ... and we promise, NO SLOGANS.  We're interested in our participant's stories ... what made you decide to volunteer or teach abroad, and we're interested in your stories as the experience you deserve develops.

In 2014 we are focused on one thing:  "How are we helping?"

If consumer's can't differentiate us from the rest of the guys offering some of the same experiences ... we'll quit.  If our Blog and our online experience isn't seen as a "learning center ... your hub to teach, learn and discuss volunteer and teach abroad," then we're simply contributing to Internet smog.  We won't be a happy cow.

Happy Holidays!

Tags: Program Reviews, Travel Patty Awards, Travel Humor

How Volunteer Abroad Reviews Are Supposed To Work, Part 2

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Tue, Oct 02, 2012

Volunteer Forever LogoThis Blog post (part 2 of 2 parts) was written by Steve Weddle, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Volunteer Forever.  Steve Co-Founded Volunteer Forever after his volunteer trip to India.  The experience was life-changing.  Upon returning to the U.S. and realizing there are significant information and financial barriers that keep many people from volunteering abroad, Steve hatched the idea for Volunteer Forever.  There you can create a profile and start fundraising for your trip right away.  Find trips and review your experiences.

In Part 1 of this series, I began to tell a story of how a volunteer organization wanted a bad review from one of their volunteers deleted from Volunteer Forever. In an industry that has been plagued with allegations of fake reviews (see Randy LeGrant’s three-part series here), the deletion of real negative reviews is an analogous problem.

As a volunteer, I had my fair and honest review (6/10 rating) deleted on another volunteer abroad reviews site. I shouldn’t have been surprised - there was a giant banner ad of the organization I was reviewing right on the site. The organization I was reviewing also happened to be a “verified organization.” At the time, being a “verified organization” meant the organization paid $500 to be listed as such and had their email address/phone number verified. I suspected some sort of relationship between this reviews site and the volunteer organization; I assumed being verified meant that organization could request that reviews be deleted. After talking to some of the heads of the major volunteer abroad organizations, it seems the relationship may be much, much closer.

Now back to my story:
Ultimately, the organization decided to refund the program fee of the volunteer and apologize for the misinformation. The volunteer subsequently deleted their review (volunteer’s prerogative) off the organization’s page. Here’s the response I got back from the organization:

“I contacted the volunteers that wrote that and apologized for their experience and offered to refund their enrolment fee back as compensation and it worked!! They have removed the review in return so I am very grateful for your help and in moving forward I will ensure I have better communication with the projects and make sure I'm aware of any changes to the projects for volunteers”

thumbs up to an online reviewWith volunteers having the power to edit/delete their reviews and organizations able to respond to reviews, volunteers are now much more empowered in the marketplace and organizations have an incentive to engage dissatisfied volunteers without resorting to deleting reviews or posting fake reviews to counter a negative review. We hope these features will contribute to greater transparency in the industry and provide a mechanism to resolve complaints.

The simple mechanisms I described above are just the first wave of features Volunteer Forever has developed for volunteer abroad reviews. We’re also developing a patent-pending reviews verification system that leverages our integrated crowdfunding and reviews platform to determine the credibility of a review and weight that review appropriately. The idea is to use crowdfunding, which will help tackle the high costs associated with volunteering abroad (particularly challenging when most participants are under age 25), to provide verifiable data about a user on our site.  The more credible the user is, the more weighting their review will have in the marketplace. And because a user’s review (not just number of reviews) shows up right on their profile page, a user with malicious intent cannot simply “grow” a seemingly credible user to post multiple fake reviews.

I hope my story illustrates that there is a way to resolve bad reviews without resorting to deleting the review without the reviewer’s permission or writing fake reviews to lessen the impact of the negative review. With the right technological features in place on a reviews website and educating volunteer organizations on the proper recourses to take, we can tackle the growing problem of fake and deleted reviews in the volunteer abroad industry.

 

Do you have a comment to make on fake reviews, online reviews or Steve's 2 part series.  We would love to hear from you.

Tags: Program Reviews, Volunteer/Work Abroad Industry Updates

How Volunteer Abroad Reviews Are Supposed To Work Part I

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Mon, Oct 01, 2012

Volunteer Forever LogoThis Blog post (and the one that follows tomorrow) was written by Steve Weddle, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Volunteer Forever.  Steve Co-Founded Volunteer Forever after his volunteer trip to India.  The experience was life-changing.  Upon returning to the U.S. and realizing there are significant information and financial barriers that keep many people from volunteering abroad, Steve hatched the idea for Volunteer Forever.  There you can create a profile and start fundraising for your trip right away.  Find trips and review your experiences.

A few weeks ago, one of our partner organizations on Volunteer Forever received a terrible review (one out of five stars). The volunteer claimed they were given inaccurate information about their placement. As such, their pre-departure preparation and the materials they brought for their placement added little value to their trip. The volunteer made the best of the situation with the new placement, but seriously questioned the need for paying the intermediary organization.

This partner organization of ours is very new to the marketplace, so this negative review was devastating. In what I’m sure was a moment of panic, the director of the organization sent me an email asking me to delete the review. To be honest, I was pretty disturbed when I got this request, but was completely expecting it at some point. Those of you who know my story know that I started Volunteer Forever after my fair and honest review of a volunteer organization was deleted on another volunteer abroad reviews site (disclaimer: the other reviews site was NOT Go Overseas or Rate My Study Abroad).

The email looked something like this:

“I am trying to market my idea and have such good intentions and so I asked them to write a review and they did so and gave me a terrible review and only 1/5. I think this may destroy my opportunity to market. Can I please request from you 1 freebie and tell me how to remove this review off my page or tell me how to do it? I have made appropriate changes to ensure this will not happen again in moving forward! please (sic) do me this 1 favor if you could and I will never ask this sort of thing again.”

Marking online reviewsI have to assume the volunteer organization’s primary intention was not to engage in fraud. They claimed to make changes to their program and to better work with their in country partner organization to provide more reliable information to their volunteers. But, they still had this bad review to deal with. The organization perceived their future was in jeopardy and they probably didn’t clearly think through what the options were. Here’s what I wrote back:

“Thanks for reaching out and sorry to hear about your unsatisfied volunteer. Unfortunately, I'm not going to be able to delete that review. I actually started Volunteer Forever after I posted a fair and honest review of my volunteer abroad experience on another site and had it deleted the next day. To delete this negative review for you would undermine everything I believe in regarding honesty and transparency in the volunteer abroad industry.

Even though we can't delete the review for you, we have built in some functionality to handle situations like this. First, I encourage you to address the negative review publicly, by replying to it. Acknowledge your volunteer's dissatisfaction and pledge to improve your service. Lay out what you are doing to improve your service for future volunteers.

Second, I encourage you to reach out to this volunteer privately and offer some sort of consideration. I read their review and they indicated that the service you provided was not worth the program fee they paid. Perhaps you can refund their program fee as a way to make amends?

The reviewer has the capability to either edit their review (including the numerical rating component) or delete their review. There is a way for you to remove this negative review, but it will have to involve you directly engaging the volunteer and convincing them to remove or improve it.

In the end, directly addressing this unsatisfied volunteer is the best option for you to pursue. Even if I did delete the review, there's nothing preventing them from coming back and writing more negative reviews (and seriously questioning your integrity). You can recover from one bad review- recovering from a questioning of your business ethics is much, much harder.”

Stay tuned for the next post to see how the situation was resolved.

Tags: Program Reviews, Volunteer/Work Abroad Industry Updates

Online Reviews - A Great NY Times Piece Last Sunday

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Thu, Aug 30, 2012

Last Sunday (August 26, 2012) the NY Times ran a fantastic article on the FRONT PAGE of the Business section entitled, "The Best Reviews Money Can Buy." If you subscribe to the Times or can get a short subscription to read the article online, you can read the article here. If that is a hassle for you, PLEASE try to find the Times for August 26. Trust me, it will be very much worth the search.

Thumbs up for a great online reviewGeoVisions has been on the front line of bashing online reviews for months. We go at it and people write to us here and applaud our efforts. And then we think we're being a bit too annoying and we give it a rest. And then we see junk reviews online and it sets us off and here we go again.

But when the NY Times decided to get into the fray, in a Sunday edition and on the front page of the Business section, we thought we might weigh in again.

At the University of Illinois, Chicago, research showed that 60 percent of the millions of product reviews on Amazon are five stars and an additional 20 percent are four stars. But as Bing Liu, a data-mining expert at the University said, "Almost no one wants to write five-star reviews, so many of them have to be created. The wheels of online commerce run on positive reviews.”

Mr. Liu estimates that about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake. Yet it is all but impossible to tell when reviews were written by the marketers or retailers, by customers (who might get a deal from a merchant for giving a good score) or by a hired third-party service.

Reviews by ordinary people have become an essential mechanism for selling almost anything online; they are used for resorts, dermatologists, neighborhood restaurants, high-fashion boutiques, churches, parks, astrologers and healers — not to mention products like garbage pails, tweezers, spa slippers and cases for tablet computers. In many situations, these reviews are supplanting the marketing department, the press agent, advertisements, word of mouth and the professional critique.

Consumer reviews are powerful because, unlike old-style advertising and marketing, they offer the illusion of truth. They purport to be testimonials of real people, even though some are bought and sold just like everything else on the commercial Internet.

Todd Jason Rutherford from Bixby, Oklahoma owned one of the largest companies in the world providing 5 Star reviews in the publishing field. He grew so fast he had to hire freelance reviewers. He put an ad on Craigslist and received 75 responses within 24 hours. Potential reviewers were told that if they felt they could not give a book a five-star review, they should say so and would still be paid half their fee, Mr. Rutherford said. As you might guess, this hardly ever happened.

Do you want to earn some great cash? Brittany Walters-Bearden, now 24, does not read a book to review it if you pay for a 50-word glowing review. She finds info on the Internet to fill in her review. If you hire her for a 300-word review, she typically spends 15 minutes reading your book. She files three, 50 word reviews and three, 300-word reviews a week and earns about $3,000 a month. That's for working 3 hours a week.

online review ratingsDo you REALLY think reviews are going to help you in the end? One review site located in New Zealand and owned by a volunteer abroad operator posts some of the more outlandish reviews manipulated by volunteer organizations. Do you really expect consumers to see your four reviews for your company on August 27, all four of them giving you 10s in all categories, and believe you didn't manipulate the review and/or the reviewer? And just to make sure your reviews are "trust worthy" you might make sure you get two 10s and a 9. THAT will convince the consumer you didn't pay for that review. Hey…you're a real clever dude.

So what happens when everyone starts getting caught? GeoVisions has started action against one online review organization by contacting Google with proof with what is going on. Others will too, if they care about their businesses and if they care about the industry. And if they care only about themselves (as most do) they will keep piling on those artificial reviews getting all 9s and 10s.

Mr. Rutherford's account, mentioned above, was ultimately suspended by Google. That's what GeoVisions is attempting to do with one of the review sites. Mr. Rutherford is selling R.V.'s in Oklahoma City now. Google says if he can prove that he's not being paid for doing the reviews and he's not paying reviewers, they will reinstate his account. It is similar to paying $500 to be "verified" by a review company, which buys you the privilege of contesting reviews and the like. Google just doesn't like that stuff.  Nothing illegal about it.  Google just doesn't like it.

Mr. Rutherford says he regrets his venture into what he called “artificially embellished reviews” but argues that the market will take care of the problem of insincere over enthusiasm. In other words, objective consumers who purchase an item or service based on positive reviews will end up posting negative reviews if the work or service is not good,” he said. Unless you are a volunteer sender and you own the company. Then you can delete those reviews if they are about your own company. Ultimately we have to rely upon Google to deindex that company.

online reviews can be a shell gameIn other words, the (real) bad reviews will then drive out the (fake) good reviews. This seems to underestimate, however, the powerful motivations that companies have to rack up good reviews — and the ways they have to manipulate them until a better system comes along.

We are at the stage in online reviews where companies think if they pile on the great reviews, those will drown out the few bad ones. In real life, there are enough review sites out there now, if you drown out a bad review on one site, that bad review will simply be replaced on another site. And over time, just like with Mr. Rutherford's company, the real reviews will drown out the fake ones.

I only hope I live long enough to see that happen.

Tags: Program Reviews

I'm Looking For A Great Volunteer Abroad Review Site

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Wed, Jul 25, 2012

thumbs up on online review sitesWe have weighed in countless times on this Blog about online reviews. What is so ironic about online reviews is that consumers read these reviews to find out more about organizations like GeoVisions. They look for more information like, are there more positive than negative comments? What do people say online about us or the experience they had abroad? What consumers shouldn't have to think about is, "Can I trust the review site itself?" Yet, it is a question few consumers ask.

When you go to a review site, be smart. Of course we want you to review your GeoVisions experience. And we have recently decided to include Rate My Study Abroad in our online review suite of review sites. We are adding to our online presence, not reducing it. It is imperative to us that people find honest reviews (good and bad) about their GeoVisions experience. But we don't think a consumer should have to worry about the site where they post the review. There are good ones and there are not-so-good ones.

If you only ask one question, ask where the site is located. Are there real people behind it? If GeoVisions didn't put up a physical address and a telephone number, would your trust go down? Of course it would. Where are we? How do you find us? Ask the same thing of the site where you post a review. Yelp's headquarters is in San Francisco. Craig's List? SFO. Angie's List is located in Indianapolis.

Here are four sites we just picked out who are interested in your review. Hopefully this information will be helpful to you.

GoOverseas will take your review. If you click their Contact button, you will see they are located in Berkeley, CA. And they have a telephone number, too. They belong to WYSE Travel Confederation and they are an accredited business of the BBB. If you find a program that interests you, you can see easily see if the program has any reviews or not. The "Ratings and Reviews" button is easy to spot and the "Rate This Program" button is also easy to see and to leave a review is very easy and straightforward.  These people return email quickly and are extremely patient.

Online review ratingsGoAbroad will also take your review, although they call it a testimonial. Find a program you like. OK…pick "Live With A Family In France And Teach Them English." When you click that link, you'll see a testimonial about GeoVisions over on the right side of the page. There is also a tab where you can see all of the testimonials about GeoVisions and of course a button that allows you to add your own review. Very easy. If you click the About Us button, you will see GoAbroad is located in beautiful Fort Collins, Colorado. GoAbroad is affiliated with the BBB and NAFSA.

Abroad Reviews will also happily take your review. If you click the Contact Us button, there is no address and no telephone number. You can send an email, but unless you do a reverse IP check, you won't know until you get a reply that it is coming from a server in New Zealand. If you click on About This Site, you will see a full page of "Legal" stuff most consumers simply will not read. They also exact a $500 fee from providers to be "verified." If you pay the $500 you can "contest" a review. If you don't pay the $500 you cannot contest any review. So far only 4 out of literally hundreds of organizations have been gullible enough to become verified on this site.

What is also very funny (to us anyway) is that when you click on the Verified Programs button and then click the "What's This?" link, you will see this text:

Scared that all you have to go on is a website you stumbled upon and emails from a person you don’t know based in country half way around the world??

Worried that as soon as you’ve paid your deposit you will never hear from them again??

The internet [sic] is a faceless world so we are doing what we can to help!

It is ironic to us that there is no phone and no address. So for all their bravado about a "faceless Internet" they are "trying to fix", they have yet to put any official face on their own site. On this site, unfortunately it is still a "faceless world."

Rate My Study Abroad also wants your review. And in a few months there will also be Rate My Volunteer Abroad and Rate My Teach Abroad and there could be a host of other "Rate My…" coming. Who knows? Powered by an association with GoAbroad (see above) this company captures programs and projects on GoAbroad and incorporates them on Rate My Study Abroad (as well as listing most colleges and universities own study abroad programs) and includes that big engine on GoAbroad with an amazing widget. Organizations and schools can add the RMSA widget to their own sites and program pages. We love that aspect of working with them.

holding up online review ratings cardsWhat makes this review site so powerful though is that organizations can couple a review with an evaluation. So the review is public and goes out to everyone on Rate My Study Abroad. The program evaluation is private and goes to the organization to improve their services and projects. This company is in Fort Collins, CO and returns emails and phone calls almost instantly.  They accept NO ADVERTISING and of course "paying for verification" is a no-no.  They are the only real independent review site out there at this time.

So here are four sites you can use to find out more about GeoVisions.

There is a new site coming that will incorporate reviews with fundraising for an overseas project.  That site, Volunteer Forever will be live soon.  This site looks to be a one-stop shop by having you create a profile, look at projects abroad and then fundraise to make your dream a reality.

We hope this information helps you evaluate the evaluations!  Happy reading and writing.

Tags: Program Reviews, Volunteering Abroad

Spotting The Fake Volunteer Abroad Reviews

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Thu, Nov 03, 2011

Talk about irony.  While I was writing this 3rd Blog post about online reviews I received an email about a brand new volunteer abroad online review site.  Online reviews must be the fastest growing online business in the world.  The new site will be called Volunteer Voice and soon you can find them at volunteervoice.org.  All this industry needs is another online volunteer abroad program review site. I didn't provide a link, because the site is not live right now.

Call outsSo...moving on to the point of this post.  If you take an hour and go to 3 or 4 of the current online review sites and take time to read reviews, you will clearly see that some of the reviews are fake.  While there are no studies on exactly how many online reviews are faked, it’s clearly happening. Companies hire out review writers to flood popular services like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google Places, and company pages on Facebook with glowing reviews. Others hire people to leave bad reviews for their competitors. How can you tell which reviews might be fake?  And why does GeoVisions think this is important to Blog about?

You can't stop fake reviews.  You CAN take a stand against the online review sites publishing them and having no system in place to verify that the reviewer is indeed a former volunteer with that organization.  And that is what we intend to do.  We are not going to do business with people who have no verification process in place.  Will this impact our bottom line?  Yep, it will.  But if you don't have integrity, you really don't have a sustainable business, do you?  And we think fake reviews hurt good businesses.  Hit an organization with enough fake, negative reviews and you can put them out of business.  Flood the review site with fake positive reviews about your own organization and you are doing a disservice to the public.  You're lying.

But the key is most consumers have no clue this is happening, and most consumers believe what they read.  That is why it is so important for the online review site to put verification services in place.  If you don't, you're passively encouraging fake reviews to mislead consumers.

Given our use of social media these days, someone needs to tell me how anyone can trust a review from someone you know nothing about?
   
My New Best Friends

Cornell ResearchersThis photo is copyrighted by The NY Times.  In the photo, from left, Claire Cardie, Myle Ott and Jeff Hancock are among the Cornell University researchers studying fake reviews.

These researchers from Cornell recently published a paper about creating a computer algorithm for detecting fake reviewers. They were instantly approached by a dozen companies, including Amazon, Hilton, TripAdvisor and several specialist travel sites, all of which have a strong interest in limiting the spread of bogus reviews.

The researchers have developed an algorithm to distinguish fake from real, which worked about 90 percent of the time.

Also, research shows that humans are 5 times more likely to remember (and therefore write about) our negative experiences rather than focussing on promoting the good ones.  This leaves good organizations in a pretty poor state. They need people to see at least 5 times more positive reviews than negative, yet we are psychologically programmed to be five times more likely to leave negative reviews than positive ones. Is it really surprising, therefore, that business owners have had to resort to dishonestly writing their own good reviews as a way to try to even up the balance?

What do the comments on a review site actually mean if you know nothing about the person leaving them? If an 18-year old college student says she paid too much for her program to go work with orphans in Cambodia and you're 50 years old and you're going to China and teach English, do you really care that the student thought the program was too pricy? The fact is, if you don’t know even a little about the person leaving the comment, then how do you know if it is relevant for you?

Sandra Parker
Ms. Parker is a professional reviewer.  She wrote hundreds of fake reviews for companies in order to create a buzz.  While the companies didn't require her to write lies or tell her exactly what to write, if the review wasn't five star, they didn't pay the typical $10 to $20 fee.  And Ms. Parker is only one of thousands of people, who, everyday write fake reviews.

"Each of us was tasked with writing and posting a five-star review in order to create the appearance of having many satisfied customers. Having too many five-star reviews is a surefire clue that something is amiss."

"When I was paid to produce a review, I was usually given a deadline of 48 hours for completion. The same held true for the other reviewers assigned to the same project. This meant that what we reviewed would have anywhere from 10 to 50 or more reviews posted within a 48-hour period. If you find a bunch of reviews posted around the same date/time, be wary."

5 star reviewsOther Ways To Spot A Fake Review
Look at the language of the review: does the reviewer use the actual company name? If they repeatedly say “GeoVisions” [insert your company name here] when they could just say volunteer abroad, they could be trying to game the search engines.

If numerous users all left reviews around the same time, and there hasn’t been much activity since, they could all be the same person or company leaving reviews under different names.

Steer clear of user reviews that read like a sales ad.

User reviews are a valuable tool that you can use to gauge whether a program will work for you. The main thing to remember when reading them is to trust your instinct. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, no matter what the reviews say.

Ignore reviews that focus on details rather than value.

Be skeptical of totally positive reviews. While there are hardcore fans of certain programs, most of us don’t have an incentive to write glowing reviews just because a organization does what we expected (and paid for) it to do. Rather, people usually write reviews to vent their frustration against a company, warn people against problems, or assess pros and cons.

Watch out for super-negative reviews too. In addition to praising their own products, fakers will also knock competitors’ programs, especially their terms and conditions. Simple claims of “the program cost too much,” “I'm leaving this as a warning,” or “beware!!!!” are empty adjectives.

So in sum
Look for ratings a couple notches below perfect, with some details that don’t sound like copy-paste work. Pay attention to reviewer names and their history, and Google anything suspicious. Follow that advice, and you have a good idea who to trust.

Monday
We finish up our posts on online review sites by going to four of them.  We'll give our own review of each and show you a few things about each one you didn't know.  Our reviews won't be fake, we will leave our name and contact info, and they will be tough.  And no, we won't remove them.

If you have time, check out our first two posts in this series on volunteer abroad online review sites:

Volunteer Abroad Organizations And Those Online Reviews

Did You Volunteer Abroad?  Are You Sure?

Tags: Program Reviews, Volunteering Abroad, Volunteer/Work Abroad Industry Updates

Did You Volunteer Abroad? Are You Sure?

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Mon, Oct 31, 2011

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.

Tags: Program Reviews, Volunteer/Work Abroad Industry Updates

Volunteer Abroad Organizations And Those Online Reviews

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Thu, Oct 27, 2011

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:

Travel Mole HeaderReaction 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
 
Special feature newsThe 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

Tags: Program Reviews, Volunteer/Work Abroad Industry Updates