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Oyster Leaves Hotel Ratings to the Pros

A new travel Web site is taking a contrarian approach to an increasingly complicated — and controversial — question: How do I choose where to stay on vacation?

Launched this week with reviews of 250 hotels and resorts in the Caribbean and Miami, Oyster Hotel Reviews aims to uncover lodging pearls through extensive reports and photos produced by 10 full-time journalists. Oyster says they book and stay anonymously at each property. Founder Elie Seidman told Business Week it would take about $40 million for Oyster to break even.

That's a contrast to the "wisdom of the crowds" method employed by TripAdvisor.com, whose millions of hotel user reviews are coming under renewed fire from critics who say they can be misleading, manipulated or fraudulent. (The company will not give specific numbers for reviews vs. other travel posts on the site.)

Unlike anonymous user critiques or some guidebooks that take freebies, "we're offering a professional, structured perspective," Seidman says.

He says the site's in-house reporters post at least 125 of their own photos per review, using a 65-page manual to praise and criticize lodgings in Aruba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Miami.

The site plans to add 200 hotels in New York and Las Vegas by mid-July, and will add reader comments to reporter write-ups.

How does Oyster — which hopes to cover 20,000 hotels in about 175 destinations by 2012 — choose lodgings to evaluate? "It's art as well as science," Seidman says. Targeted to vacationers in popular destinations, they will appeal to a range of budgets and demographics. But "we're not a luxury-focus site," he says, "and you're not going to see a $35-a-night place near the airport or a small bed-and-breakfast inn."

Oyster's debut comes amid continuing popularity and increasing controversy surrounding user-generated reviews — particularly those at Expedia-owned TripAdvisor, which is a USA TODAY partner in reader surveys and claims more than 11 million members and 25 million monthly visitors. In a 2008 JupiterResearch survey, four out of 10 researching trips online used some user-generated content for their most recent trip.

Warning: May be manipulated

Jeff Tucker, editor of the blog BeatofHawaii.com, sparked the latest round of TripAdvisor criticism when he noted this month that it was posting warning messages on at least 90 of its hotel pages. The "red badge" disclaimers, which TripAdvisor says have been used since 2006, state that the property or individuals associated with it "may have attempted to manipulate our popularity index by interfering with the unbiased nature of our reviews" and ask users to "take this into consideration when researching your travel plans."

Travel-guidebook veteran Arthur Frommer, whose blog appears (along with guidebook hotel reviews) on Frommers.com, joined the fray: "Why wouldn't a hotel submit a flurry of positive comments penned by employees or friends?" he wrote. "If you were a hotel owner, wouldn't you ... make sure TripAdvisor contained numerous favorable write-ups of your property?"

Charges of manipulated reviews on TripAdvisor and other sites are not new, says Jay Karen, president of the 2,000-member Professional Association of Innkeepers International. But while he estimates that less than 10 percent of reviews are "disingenuous, false or embellished, it's the hottest topic in our industry right now."

When Karen polled member innkeepers last summer about TripAdvisor, the 300 responses included multiple grievances about planted reviews from competitors, threats of negative critiques from guests if innkeepers didn't refund cancellation deposits, and inns whose TripAdvisor "popularity index" plummeted on the basis of a single slam.

TripAdvisor says the company screens every review before it's posted, uses proprietary, anti-fraud algorithms to identify attempts to game the system, and relies on its large community to flag suspect content. The site lets hotel management post responses, has links to users' previous contributions, and encourages users to post information about themselves.

Says TripAdvisor spokesman Brooke Ferencsik: "The sheer volume of reviews we have for an individual property allows travelers to base their decisions on the opinions of many and prevents any single opinion from carrying too much influence."

More resources for travelers

While TripAdvisor may be the 800-pound gorilla of user review sites, others are launching or expanding lodging critiques, from Kayak.com (which started displaying user reviews from multiple sources via TravelPost.com this spring) to ProfessionalTravelGuide.com (like Oyster, it relies on reviews from journalists).

"In this economy, people are turning to review sites even more because they don't want to risk their hard-earned money, and they appreciate the unfiltered, good-and-bad approach. These days, I don't hear many people talking about AAA ratings or what they read in a magazine," says Karen, who credits TripAdvisor for spotlighting small or out-of-the-way lodgings that would never have made the cut in a travel article or guidebook.

But, he says, "you can game any system — and it's still the Wild West out there."

(BREAKOUT MATERIAL)

How to sort out the truth on a hotel

As Craigslist founder Craig Newmark said recently about the future of news, "trust is the new black." But deciding whom to believe when reading online hotel reviews can be baffling. Some tips:

Consult multiple sources. Some sites, including Expedia.com and Priceline.com, require reviewers to be customers who've stayed at a property. Others (including BedandBreakfast.com) may encourage positive ratings by giving incentives for guests to post reviews, says online travel expert and blogger Dennis Schaal.

Discard the most effusive and angriest reviews. They may come from owners or competitors.

Be wary of one-time posters. "If there is only one very detailed review, it may be a plant. Genuine reviewers often like to be heard and post frequently," says travel strategist Susan Black of Susan Black Associates.

Look for reviewers whose interests and demographics mesh with yours. But "account for cultural differences. For example, American tourists complain bitterly about the small hotel rooms in Europe. That doesn't mean they're bad," says Jason Cochran on WalletPop.com.

Be cautious judging lodgings with just a smattering of reviews or relying on reviews more than a year old. That's assuming you can tell, since some sites don't date critiques.

Check forums as well as reviews. They often have more current info, from hurricanes to renovations.

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