Can You Trust TripAdvisor (And Other Online) Reviews?

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can you trust TripAdvisor

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.

Consider looking through photos that aren’t the “perfect” hotel stock.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Featured image courtesy of Amy Wardlaw via Flickr, used without modification under CC BY 2.0 license.

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by any advertiser or bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser. It is not any advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

21 COMMENTS

  1. I find it helpful to look at 1 and 2 star reviews, determine what the person was complaining about(was it reasonable), and how did the place respond(is it generic response or do they actually address the problem).
    For example, if someone complains that it took 15 minutes for the bell service to deliver a bag, that is unreasonable. If someone complains that it took 4 hours and 3 tries to get the bag delivered and the hotel responds with “thanks for the feedback,” that isn’t great either.

    If I see similar, relevant complaints across the bad reviews, or snarky responses, then I want to stay away, regardless of how many good reviews a place may have. I hired a guide in Cambodia with amazing reviews(over 300) except for a small handful who mentioned the same problems. He replied really snarkily, didn’t apologize, and dismissed their complaints. I hired him, had some issues that echoed other peoples ,and wrote an honest review, but gave him 3 stars as I had a mixed experience, not horrible. I outlined the good parts and the main bad issue(his still taking me to do things I flat out told him I didn’t want to). His response was dismissive and said that I must just be overly emotional the day I wrote the reviews.
    Never again, always check the bad ones.

    • Looking for trends is definitely key. You can get a crazy one-off review from a crazy person. But repeated issues are not a good sign.

  2. So true about the management’s photos, especially of the rooms. They use ultra-wide camera lenses that make rooms appear way larger than they are.

  3. Agree with a lot of the above comments on best ways to read TripAdvisor reviews. I also write reviews and try to provide useful details. As a result I don’t write that many after my trips.

    One thing I find useful is to look at the photos taken by travelers. This can be helpful with hotels, because traveler photos show the reality compared to the glossy pro photos provided by the hotel.

    • It is true that good reviews take time, time many people may not want to spend writing them. But other travelers do appreciate it!

  4. I use TripAdvisor as one resource for a potential booking. I’ve also written over 100 reviews and have a Helpful Review ratio of over 2:1 (more than 2 Helpful votes for each review written). I try to place as much detail into my review as possible. For example, I will include every item (or nearly every item) served at breakfast. That seems to be one of the most impressive things to readers.

    Yes, when I see a string of short, very positive reviews, about a place, it seems to me some guy got a bunch of his friends to post reviews for high ranking. You can spot them a mile away. It’s often their first review. I know we all had a time when when we only had one review.

    Detailed reviews about things you can’t make up are useful. My longest, most detailed reviews seem to get the most Helpful votes. I really don’t like writing them unless they are really great or really bad places. It takes a long time to assemble and put the facts to paper (white space).

    I take the time to read many reviews before I select a place to stay or eat. Most have worked out well for me.

    • You sound like a great reviewer! I have contributed as well, but not regularly. Looking at the detailed reviews makes the most sense by far.

  5. Use FakeSpot.com – you enter the URL of the review – Amazon, Yelp, TripAdvisor, etc – on the site, and it’ll tell you the percentage of real reviews as judged by it’s algorithm.

  6. Yelp’s business practices are particularly nasty. Talk to any restaurant owner about the “Yelp Mafia” and you’ll get an earful. Fake poor reviews from Yelp salespeople (after not making a sale) the “greying out” of good reviews (after not making a sale) and lots of hard sell.

    For restaurants, I use all of these sites (including Yelp) but try to limit my viewing to pictures of food taking by non-professionals. That’s hard to fake.

    • Yelp is awful. My wife was the GM of a restaurant and she got the same experiences that you mention. Now we just avoid Yelp at all costs.

    • Man, I’d not heard about this side of things. I’d mainly heard about them not removing poor reviews, not planting their own!

  7. How about amazon Reviews? There have been numerous times that amazon employees have been caught taking money to get rid of negative reviews from items. I take amazon reviews with a grain of salt.

    • I’m gonna go look that up. Another angle for Amazon I’d heard of is manufacturers shipping items to folks that didn’t order them to let the seller write positive reviews.

  8. When I was looking at restaurants in Heraklion on TripAdvisor, I noticed some interesting things.

    There were an unusually large number of local reviewers.
    These reviewers all wrote in English rather than Greek.
    The reviewers all had very few reviews to their credit.
    The above reviews were either praising the place to heaven or wrote scathing reviews.

    My take on this was that there was some secret war going on with restaurants torpedoing each other while trying to build themselves up. Now when I search TripAdvisor, I look for number of reviews with an absolute minimum of five to be considered valid, the spread of good to bad ratings, since some people tend toward minimum or maximum ratings, origin of the reviewer compared to the business, and how detailed the review runs. For reviews that don’t meet the above criteria, I’ll still look at them but tend to give them little weight.

  9. In the years I have been posting on TA as well as seeking places to eat internationally the results have been fine however I do question the validity of some especially when their local (local being in your general metropolitan area) Such as a person “reviewing” McDonalds, Starbucks, Wendys etc all for number of reviews. I moved to a new area and was placed at the top, (smaller metro area than where I came from, where I was always in the top 5) the person below me went on a rampage of reviews to top me and is now 40 some up from 30 down all in a matter of a couple of months. Now I average 100k in the air for business and another 30K for pleasure, all international with many using my Amex PLT card results in “certified” usage.

    Bottom line it’s akin to the hacking of points some people just have to be number 1 and that’s ok with me.

  10. It also helps to pay attention to how many reviews the reviewer has posted and how many “helpful” votes s/he has.

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