Photograph by Dan Westergren, NGS
From the March/April 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler
Want to start an argument? Just bring up the topic of user-generated reviews to a group of well-traveled friends. You know … those ratings by “real” people found on TripAdvisor, Yelp, and the like. Many travelers swear by ’em. But there’s a vocal minority who think they’re deeply flawed, maybe even fraudulent.
Both are right, in a way. In principle, user-generated reviews are an ideal way to find honest opinions from folks just like us; they can be more useful for hotel and restaurant recommendations than a guidebook, which is outdated almost from the moment it rolls off the press. But in practice, they’ve been tainted by the travel industry. Some of the reviews on these sites are bogus, and even the real ones are written by people with an extreme experience to report—either an exceptionally good one or an outrageously bad one. As a result, user-generated reviews paint a picture that’s distorted at best and, at worst, downright deceptive.
So what’s the problem? You. More than 81 percent of hotel guests say they’re influenced by these online reviews, which means there’s a better-than-average chance you’ve clicked on a hotel rating, read it, believed it, and booked a room based on the write-up. You really shouldn’t do that.
I shouldn’t either, but, like you, I can’t seem to help it. I consult these sites regularly (I especially love Yelp’s smart phone app, with its Foursquare-like check-ins from my phone). I’ve chosen restaurants and hotels based on these ratings. It’s human nature, even when we know the source is flawed.
I’ve watched the evolution of hotel and restaurant reviews over the years. Just a decade ago, you had to turn to a travel agent, a trusted guidebook, or a magazine like this one for information about a destination. The two dominant sites, TripAdvisor and Yelp, promised democracy of opinion. (TripAdvisor started in 2000; Yelp in 2004.) But they evolved into more of a dictatorship. The Internet didn’t so much challenge the old hegemony as create a new one, siphoning the power from old media, and establishing a few powerful key players. Interestingly, the information revolution didn’t set information free; it consolidated it.
Having just a couple of dominant sites makes it far too easy for hotels and restaurants to manipulate them. The antics range from paying guests and even nonguests to write positive reviews about a business, to companies creating fake accounts and using them to badmouth their competition. Take the example of a restaurateur in Costa Rica who created multiple fake TripAdvisor accounts, including—I’m not making this up—“Debbie from Dallas,” and bombarded the site with positive reviews about his tavern. “Within days I was rated a perfect five,” he bragged. “During that same time my competitors’ ratings mysteriously declined.” I passed the information on to the Today show, which interviewed him for an exposé on user-generated reviews.
The emerging field of online reputation management specializes in making businesses look better than they are. In the hands of the practitioners of these dark arts, online sites stand little chance. Last year, TripAdvisor essentially admitted to its credibility problem when it changed its hotel review section slogan from “reviews you can trust” to “reviews from our community” in response to a British Advertising Standards Agency investigation.
The review sites continue to insist their ratings are truthful. TripAdvisor claims it employs moderators who screen out “questionable” reviews. It also uses automated tools to review content and flag bogus ratings, but it won’t give details, insisting that explaining the system would help people game it. Yelp, too, says it has an almost foolproof fraud-detection algorithm, but businesses complain that it ensnares as many legitimate reviews as it does bogus ones. Nice try, guys.
But hegemonies don’t last forever. A decade is an eternity in Internet time. New websites that allow you to review your airline seat, hotel room, or restaurant are springing up, chipping away at the primacy of the big review sites. For example, Starwood Hotels recently announced it would allow guests to post reviews on its hotel sites (including Four Points, Sheraton, and W hotels) and promised to let customers tell it the way it is. Marriott announced a similar program. Online travel agency Travelocity unveiled a new feature last fall allowing travelers to submit questions about a hotel and to get feedback from fellow travelers or the hotel.
Everyone is getting in on the act, from online behemoths such as Google, with its new Google Places that allows you to rate businesses, to niche players such as LuxuryHotelist.com, which aggregates user reviews of upscale hotels from Priceline.com, Booking.com, and social media.
So, wait. Why would companies who might actively engage in reputation management on the one hand allow objective reviews on their own sites on the other? Robert Cole, founder of travel consulting company RockCheetah, invokes Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, who advised keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. “Overcoming the fear of a guest airing a hotel’s dirty laundry on their own website, hotel chains have come to the conclusion that if these views are being expressed, it is better to have an opportunity to apologize, explain, or respond,” he says.
When I ask travelers how they factor user-generated reviews into their booking decisions, some of them sound like David Farnham, a Traveler subscriber from Roanoke, Virginia. “I don’t believe everything I read,” he says. Specifically, he doubts reviews that are excessively positive or negative. A second step is now required. Taking a look at the biggies is still important, but so is casting a wide net for blogs, review sites, and even company-sponsored reviews. This diffused information is a welcome development, because reputation managers, who might easily trick one or two sites, are hard-pressed to do the same for hundreds of information resources. Every click dismantles the hegemony—and helps you.
The lesson is clear: To make a vacation decision based on TripAdvisor reviews or to pick a restaurant solely on Yelp is folly. Such blind faith in a broken system could ruin your trip. But aggregating recommendations from friends, user-generated reviews, travel agents, and yeah, even the observations of an old-school magazine writer—that’s the right call.