These tips will help you sort the real online reviews from the fakes.

By Karen Goodwin
March 27, 2014
Credit: Bernd Vogel / Corbis

Can you figure out which of these two hotel reviews is fake?

1. I have stayed at many hotels traveling for both business and pleasure and I can honestly say that The James is tops. The service at the hotel is first class. The rooms are modern and very comfortable. The location is perfect, within walking distance to all of the great sights and restaurants. Highly recommended to both business travelers and couples.

2. My husband and I stayed at the James Chicago Hotel for our anniversary. This place is fantastic! We knew as soon as we arrived we made the right choice! The rooms are BEAUTIFUL and the staff very attentive and wonderful!! The area of the hotel is great, since I love to shop I couldn’t ask for more!! We will definitely be back to Chicago and we will for sure be back to the James.

Odds are you can’t, according to researchers at Cornell University, who found that people are generally not very good at picking true reviews versus false. In 2011, the team developed an algorithm to distinguish real reviews from fake, and it was accurate about 90 percent of the time. Ten they hired freelance writers to compose 400 positive but fake reviews of 20 popular Chicago hotels, and mixed those in with what they believed to be 400 positive TripAdvisor customer reviews for the same hotels. The results? Three human judges scored no better than chance in identifying the fake reviews.

Why? People suffer from “truth bias,” according to the researchers, and are inherently more inclined to believe an opinion is honest rather than deceptive. But people trained at detecting deception became too skeptical, and still scored no better than chance at telling true from false, the researchers found. (The answer to the question above: No. 2 is phony.)

Instead of being purely descriptive, fake hotel reviews rely more on superlatives to describe experiences: “Deceptive writing often contains exaggerated language,” the researchers found. Phony reviews also include the words I and me more frequently, a tactic by deceivers to enhance their credibility, since they haven’t actually been there. External aspects to the hotel are also emphasized (e.g., references to husband, business, vacation).

Fake reviewers don’t spend a lot of time writing their impressions. Nearly 12 percent of the hired reviewers in Cornell’s study completed their phony hotel review submissions in less than one minute. Sandra Parker, a freelance writer hired by a review factory to produce Amazon reviews for $10 each, suggests checking the date/time stamps on reviews. Hired reviewers on a project may be given 48 hours to complete their reviews, she says. If anywhere from 10 to 50 or more reviews are posted within the same 48-hour period, be wary.

Mike Dini, president of Te Dini Group in La Jolla, Calif., is an active participant on, where the validity of online hotel reviews has been discussed in depth. Last year on FlyerTalk, he re-posted 18 TripAdvisor reviews of a hotel in Stockholm, explaining why he believed they were all fake, based on his personal experience. Dini, who regularly stays in luxury hotels, believes too many properties are gaming the system.

“Fake reviews have reached a critical mass, rendering the system unreliable,” he says. “The vast majority of the positive reviews are employees, relatives of employees or paid contributions.”