The myriad imperfections of TripAdvisor do not go unremarked.
It seems that hardly a week can pass without another scandal about fake reviews. The British Advertising Standards Authority smacked TripAdvisor around last year for its advertising claims. Arthur Frommer hates on it quite regularly. And it doesn’t help, in my view, that it continues to publish dubious lists of the world’s best whatevers.
But none of that matters nearly as much as what TripAdvisor has done for travelers, a boon so big and so meaningful that I think it’s fair to call it historic. TripAdvisor has exposed the bad guys of the hospitality business, the frauds and cheats, the kind of people who have been preying on travelers not for decades or centuries but for millennia. I’m talking about the vicious, greedy restaurateurs and hoteliers who have plagued travelers without regard for their reputations because reputations didn’t matter when there was always a fresh horde of tourists to steal from.
Stealing from travelers has always been safer and easier, of course, than stealing from neighbors, who are likely to take it personally and exact revenge. It’s precisely because travelers are vulnerable that society has always regarded abusing them as a particular temptation to the wicked and a test of morality for the good. Dante placed those who betray their guests in the ninth, final and presumably hottest circle of Hell for a reason, presumably the same one that prompted God to instruct Moses, “And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him.”
Well, there’s been vexing aplenty and very little to be done about it from the time of Chaucer to the time of Paul Theroux — until TripAdvisor came along. Because whatever else it might fail to do, or might do poorly, TripAdvisor has been extraordinarily effective at identifying and exposing the worst of the worst, the filthy hotels with hideous service and the rip-off restaurants that serve overpriced, inedible crap. And this is a service so critically important to the well-being of the modern traveler that I am prepared to forgive TripAdvisor for a host of other sins.
That includes the fake reviews, and there no doubt are some of those. But then life is full of fake reviews.
Let’s say you’re at a cocktail party, trying to get a fair evaluation of someone who is known to everyone but you. Most likely you’ll get a variety of opinions: he’s a great guy, he’s a little bit conceited, he’s really a jerk. With careful consideration and by consulting many people, you might start to get enough information to make some decisions about whether you want to interview this person for a job or go on a date with him or invest in his company.
This is crowd-sourcing, and when you get enough information coming in, you can start to get some idea of who you’re dealing with. But it could be difficult to get a very clear picture because, admittedly, it’s all subjective and maybe some people are lying because they’re personal or business rivals — or his best friends.
But you can be sure that if he’s been indicted for killing his mother, that information is going to come at you through a number of channels. It may not be conveyed in identical detail by each informant. Maybe his best friend won’t mention it at all and his worst enemy will add that he’s suspected of eating babies. But if you talk to enough people, you’re going to get the idea that this is not somebody you want to spend time with.
And so it is with TripAdvisor reviews. Over time, the really bad apples get their comeuppance. TripAdvisor has ensured that nobody in the hospitality industry, at least not in well-traveled areas, can cheat large numbers of people over any length of time without getting trashed. And no number of fake reviews can overcome the wrath of the crowd.
For that, I love TripAdvisor. And so should you.
As for the reviews of places that aren’t hellish tourist traps, there are ways to evaluate them with perspective. When hundreds of reviewers say a place is unpleasant and a few dissenters say everybody else is crazy, there’s a very high probability that it’s pretty bad. When hundreds of reviewers agree that it’s a great place and a few dissenters contradict everyone else, there’s a very high probability that it’s at least a decent place. And in both cases, that’s a much higher probability than anyone would get by chance or gut instinct or even, perhaps, from a review written by an expert who happened to have a single good or bad experience.
Another point: when there are only a handful of reviews, you have a much higher chance of getting unreliable information. And don’t put much stock in the ratings at either end of the spectrum — the five-star raves or the 1-star trashings — because those are most likely to be faked and least likely to be informative. The most useful reviews tend to be somewhere in the middle. This where to find thoughtful explorations of specifically what the writer liked and didn’t like.
And if you don’t trust TripAdvisor completely, consider this. It doesn’t make any money by lying to you.