Food by VICE

This Russian Company is Selling Fake TripAdvisor Restaurant Reviews for $570 Each

Russia? Meddling in online fakery?? Bring me my smelling salts and ready the fainting sofa!

by Jelisa Castrodale
May 21 2018, 7:51pm

Photo via Flickr user Luca Nebuloni / Composite by MUNCHIES Staff

Guys, this is going to be hard to believe, but apparently there’s a Russian company out there that is trying to manipulate the information we find online. According to Reuters, a marketing firm called the Bacon Agency has passed out brochures to restaurants in several of the Russian cities that will be hosting World Cup matches next month, offering to post as many fake TripAdvisor reviews as it takes to push those joints into the site’s top ten.

“What can you do if no Serbs and no Swedes have ever been to your venue and left a review?” the agency wrote in its handouts. “You write it yourself!” (This is obvs sketchy as hell, but it is kind of quaint that it’s soliciting online fraud using paper flyers). Reuters reports that, for a fee of 35,000 rubles (just under US $570), it will type the kind of glowing review that will make, say, an endless line of England supporters stop in for a meal before they all start shouting expletives at the Belgians.

The Bacon Agency’s president says it knows that this kind of thing is prohibited by TripAdvisor—but it also knows that restaurants do it anyway, so he just wants to be the middleman. “We were just testing this niche, because we see high demand. It’s not because we’re bad guys who came in and said, look, you’ve got to start swindling,” Roman Baldanov said. “All restaurants know that reviews are ordered, and many use this service.”

TripAdvisor is having none of it—and the company says that the Bacon Agency’s willingness to promote itself was one of its biggest mistakes.

“We strongly oppose any attempt to manipulate a business’ ranking on TripAdvisor,” James Kay, a TripAdvisor spokesperson told MUNCHIES. “The kind of services described in the Reuters piece are what we call review optimization, and we have a dedicated investigations team which is proactive and extremely effective at catching anyone who attempts to market them. Since 2015, we have taken action against over 60 different review optimization companies to put a stop to their activity [...] Secondly, the optimization companies themselves leave behind a trail of activity we can catch by the very fact that they have to market themselves to other hospitality business owners—so our investigators are able to track them down based on where they advertise.”

But Baldanov claims that his company’s fake reviews are the best fake reviews, because he’s figured out how to get around those algorithms and investigations that TripAdvisor uses to detect completely fabricated comments. (Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to do a great job detecting completely fabricated restaurants). He promises that his crap postings will come from “different IP addresses, devices, browsers and operating systems” and will be “full of real details about the menu and decor as well as ‘real’ photographs, which we will ask you to take.”

So what if a restaurant gets busted for doing this, either with Baldanov or on their own? They basically get a scarlet letter that says their reviews might be full of shit. “We penalize properties caught trying to use these services, which is ultimately the best way to stop optimization companies because it cuts off their revenue supply,” Kay said. “One of the strongest penalties we can apply to the properties we catch is a red badge—which is effectively a warning notice to travelers about the activity we have spotted. This is a more effective penalty than de-listing a property from TripAdvisor, because in some cases the businesses want to be removed from TripAdvisor—they don’t want future customers to have visibility of poor reviews provided by their previous customers. In most cases, the threat of a red badge alone is enough to stop optimization dead in its tracks.”

It’s almost understandable that restaurants would want to do what they can to capitalize on a month’s worth of international visitors. The World Cup is expected to be big business for… well, Russian businesses. According to the Associated Press, the tournament’s organizers estimated that the benefit to the country’s Gross Domestic Product could be between 1.62 trillion rubles ($26 billion) and 1.92 trillion rubles ($30.8 billion) for the ten-year period between 2013 and 2023. (Russia was awarded the right to host the World Cup in December 2010, and this is the first time that the tournament has been held in eastern Europe).

Fortunately (or unfortunately) for TripAdvisor’s investigators, the Bacon Agency seems to be completely ineffective at selling its fake reviews. Baldanov said that, so far, the company has had zero takers on its shady sales pitch. “The response we got was: Thanks, but we are already doing this ourselves,” he said.