I’m preparing a presentation on the five most valuable Web sites for bargain travelers, and one of them is the hotel review site TripAdvisor.
I’m well aware of the controversy about the reliability of the reviews that TripAdvisor aggregates. No less an authority than Arthur Frommer has been leading the charge, criticizing TripAdvisor’s response to false reviews on its site. He and others, including travel ombudsman and blogger Chris Elliott, have raised reasonable questions about fraud and manipulation of reviews, questions that ought to be answered.
And yet, despite these problems, TripAdvisor has accomplished something revolutionary. It has empowered the travel consumer to share experiences and to point the collective finger (whichever finger seems appropriate) at hotels that rip travelers off. The callous and casual exploitation of the stranger in town, an unfortunate tradition over the centuries, has been suddenly set back on its heels, thanks to the power of crowd-sourcing and the Internet. No fleabag hotel on this planet is safe from TripAdvisor.
As the influence of TripAdvisor has grown, savvy hotel managers and owners have been trying to manipulate their ratings. Some of them solicit positive reviews from guests and some, it would appear, plant false raves about their hotels and negative reviews of competing hotels.
TripAdvisor says it is carefully weeding out fake reviews, but has refused so far to take the steps its critics suggest would have the greatest impact: require some verification of the reviewer’s real name and proof that he or she stayed at the hotel being reviewed. Whether this is a practical possibility, I truly cannot say.
But I do know that TripAdvisor offers a breadth of coverage and immediacy that has not been matched. Traditional guidebooks can review only so many hotels, and their information is quickly dated. In the case of many small hotels in out-of-the-way places, review Web sites provide the only (admittedly imperfect) outside opinions available. Up-to-the-minute online reviews can also warn travelers about immediate problems: noisy construction, closed swimming pools and other potential disappointments.
As Joe Brancatelli recently noted in an eminently sensible defense of user-generated hotel reviews, they should be evaluated intelligently along with other sources of information. I agree, and here are my guidelines for evaluating TripAdvisor reviews:
Don’t pay much attention to a hotel’s reviews until it has accumulated a dozen or more, and be skeptical when there are only very high and/or very low ratings. Give more weight to reviews by members who have submitted a lot of postings over a long period (this information is posted with the review) and be particularly skeptical of a very positive or very negative review if it’s the only one the member has ever posted.
When a hotel has had dozens or hundreds of reviews posted, read lots of them and pay particular attention to those in the middle — giving two to four stars instead of one or five. These reviews will generally be more nuanced, citing positives and negatives so that you can evaluate the factors that matter to you.
Discount those reviews that simply declare everything “wonderful” or “horrible” and look for specific details about the rooms, the facilities and the service. If you see a repeated complaint among detailed reviews — the rooms near the elevator are noisy or the pool is cold — you can have a pretty good sense that it’s likely to be true.
Look at the reviewers’ photographs. They can be manipulated, but they’re more likely to be representative than the stylish shots on the hotel’s Web site.
Consult guidebooks and sites that link reviews to bookings, such as Priceline or Travelocity. If they have reviews of the same hotels, look for discrepancies with the TripAdvisor reviews.
I hope, along with critics, that TripAdvisor and its owner, Expedia, will take the necessary steps to control fake reviews so that travelers can help each other without having to worry about fraud. Meanwhile, I will continue to use TripAdvisor, carefully and thoughtfully, as one of several tools to evaluate hotels.