Can You Trust TripAdvisor Reviews?
Recently, I read an article about TripAdvisor defending itself against accusations that it is not doing enough to curb fake reviews on its site. It makes one wonder…can you trust TripAdvisor and other review sites?
I’ve been down the online review rabbit hole many times. Sometimes they are helpful. Other times they are humorous. On occasion they are even like a car accident: you can’t look away.
But every once in a while I get a sneaking suspicion that reviews aren’t actually all real, especially on TripAdvisor.
Are Fake Reviews a Real Issue?
Unequivocally, yes. At least from the standpoint of users generating reviews that are partially or entirely fake. You could be like this guy, getting paid to write fake reviews about anything and everything to earn a little extra cash or get free stuff. I may be guilty of writing utterly generic reviews of items on the Best Buy website that I bought, but weren’t for me. Just for the Best Buy rewards.
Reviews may be faked for a number of reasons, but travel, the highly competitive industry that it is, is especially susceptible to review abuse. It’s actually so bad, that at least one in seven could be potentially fake. It does not help that there are sites out there that pay people to write hotel reviews. Hotels also have employees, even high level ones, who post fake reviews.
But they do it because it works. People trust high ratings and are actually terrible at determining which reviews are fake. A computer algorithm fares far better, a fact that stunned me.
Even “real” reviews can end up being sort of fake. When we visited the Mutianyu Great Wall during our visit to Beijing last year, the tour guide solicited a 5-star review from everyone on the bus at the end of the tour. Their business model is so heavily dependent on ranking highly on TripAdvisor, that they are willing to flat out ask people for a 5-star review. It’s kinda tacky, but I also kinda get it. Their livelihood hangs on an algorithm.
Later, I checked their TripAdvisor listing. The tour company has large number of 5-star reviews, often brief or superficial. I’m not saying these are 100% fake, but they are so generic as to be useless. For our part, we really did enjoy our tour.
Do Travel Sites Monitor Reviews?
Now that we know that fake reviews are an issue, can you trust TripAdvisor to police reviews well enough so that fakes are spotted and removed? This is the heart of the complaint against them. TripAdvisor says they do. But the group analyzing reviews on their site says that they have a “lack of serious ongoing action” to address the problem.
One of the ways TripAdvisor supposedly spots a pattern of fake reviews is when a hotel has a large number of first-time reviewers that leave a positive review, but make no other contributions to the site. This is suspect, as the hotel could be creating an endless list of fake accounts to review their own property.
There are also complaints about sites that pull people’s negative reviews without any real follow up from the site. In these cases, they are people who have legitimate complaints that all of a sudden didn’t get their say. Supposedly TripAdvisor only removes a review if it violates their guidelines. With the number of “false positive” reviews out there, my guess is that this is less of a problem than hotels posting fake positive reviews.
Can You Trust TripAdvisor, or Should You Not?
With all that said, it depends. You really cannot avoid reviews if you want to have some idea about a hotel stay or upcoming tour. What you cannot trust is that all the reviews are going to be genuine. There will be a lot of “noise”.
What’s more important is learning how to read review sites. It’s funny….even though TripAdvisor potentially has a large number of fake positive reviews, I actively avoid Yelp because it is a negative cesspool. It’s like the review version of Twitter. From what I see, people generally go to Yelp when the are fired up from something going completely wrong.
Which makes it even more important to know how to wade through the mess and glean the actual information you’re seeking to make an honest assessment.
How to Read Travel Reviews
At the end of the day, I still find it helpful to visit sites like TripAdvisor or Google to read reviews of hotel, restaurants, tours and other travel-related items. There is definitely value in reading what others have written, and reviews are a way to find unbiased information. But you do have to look for a few things:
- How thorough is the person’s review (I don’t want a book, but more than 1-2 lines)?
- Are people consistently complaining about the same thing?
- How recent is the review (old reviews may be irrelevant)?
- How over the top is the review (i.e. does it sound phony)?
People generally gravitate toward the more extreme reviews. We like glowing 5-star reviews if it reinforces our positive impressions of something. On the other end of the spectrum, I don’t think I am alone in enjoying (if that is the right word?) the worst 1-star reviews.
But that is not what you should read (except for 1-star Google reviews of National Parks. You’re welcome). Read the middle of the road reviews. Pick the 3-star reviews, with maybe a few 2-star and 4-star thrown in. I would start with 3-star. These are not helpful enough to the hotel for them to have bought or written them, and they are not so low that you may get a crazy rant. Find the detailed, recent ones that provide some “meat” about someone’s stay.
Can you trust TripAdvisor? Maybe not overall, but you can learn how to read through mess of online reviews and glean what you need. It’s not ideal, but it is part of this internet age in which we live.