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How Trustworthy are User-Generated Reviews?

By Alex Gaggioli, March 14, 2016

Introduction

Trust seems to be a swinging pendulum. In the past, travelers only trusted professional travel sources such as Fodor’s and Frommer’s. And then, as the Internet developed, printed sources could not keep up with sites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp. Many critics, however, bash user-generated sites for sketchy business practices and false information. So then, who can travelers trust?

Where People Get Their Information

Where-travelers-get-their-information

In the past, travelers used travel guides from sources such as Fodor’s and Frommer’s.

Professional travel writers were, at one point, the most popular way for people to get trusted information. These traveler writers used well-thought out scales to rate businesses. They know how to write about a location from an objective point of view. Opinions are never 100% objective, but professional writers can present factual information more clearly.

But when the Internet arrived, suddenly the yearly-published books were always out-of-date.

Then, in the wake of the Internet, user-generated review websites started to pop up. Sites like Foursquare, Yelp, and TripAdvisor allow anyone to submit reviews for businesses. On the surface, this is a great idea. Give the power to the people and create a meritocracy. But, it has proved difficult for these sites to verify reviews. Reviews also don’t give people context.

A perfect example of mismanaged expectations went viral earlier this year. A bar owner angrily responded to a negative review because he felt it was unwarranted. Someone left a review saying that the dive bar was loud and the food was terrible. The owner responded to point out that they were advertised as a noisy bar that offered cheap drinks and beer. Nothing more, nothing less. Someone took a screenshot of the conversation and it went viral on reddit–with many readers siding with the bar owner.

A business should be judged by what they are, not what others think they should be. Sadly, many amateur reviewers on sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor don’t understand this, and use the platform to vent, to exercise some “creative writing”, and sometimes even to bully.

Now, people check all sorts of sources when they want to plan a trip, and often come across reviews without having the benefit of context. Consumers expect to see reviews during researching, and Fan & Duel recently discovered 92% of consumers hesitate to make a purchase if there are no reviews. Some of the most popular user-generated review sites, which rank well on  Google, are:

  • TripAdvisor
  • OTAs (Booking.com, Expedia, Priceline, etc.)
  • Yelp
  • Foursquare
  • Travel Bloggers
  • Social Media (Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, etc)
  • Travel books

The Internet has given everyone a voice, and with that comes information overload.

Why TripAdvisor Isn’t Always Trustworthy

Trip-Advisor-is-Not-Always-Trustworthy

A couple of weeks ago, a reputable travel journalist wrote a thought-provoking piece on TripAdvisor (TA). It’s lengthy and detailed, and if you have time you should read it. She had dozens of good points and it was meticulously thought-out. While she specifically talks about TA, the same problems exist on similar sites like Yelp and Foursquare. Here are some of the main points Heather Stimmier-Hall made in her piece.

  • No one uses the same rating scale
  • They prioritize quantity over quality
  • Some guests undertake fraudulent behavior
  • Some of these websites use Mafia-inspired tactics to extort small businesses into participating in company programs

No One Uses a Consistent Scale

TA uses little circles instead of stars. What does a circle even mean? When professional travel companies star rank a property, it’s based on a well thought out system. A one-star property has X features, a two-star property has X and Y, etc. But, when a TA user reviews a property, the circle system becomes worthless. One guest’s three-circle rating may be someone else’s five. There is no context because it’s impossible to think that everyone has the same expectations. And TA doesn’t help in this department either. Hypothetically, TA could offer distinct guidelines for their rating system. But, users probably wouldn’t adhere to it.

Quantity Over Quality:

The TA ranking system, like many other competing ranking systems, is arbitrary. It is first based on the five “circle” rating, and then the businesses with the most ratings are ranked higher. There’s a huge problem with the system because larger properties and big tour companies get ranked higher simply for having more clients. But, smaller, independent properties are at a disadvantage because of size. A small youth hostel who has 100% 5 circle ratings might get out ranked by a 3 circle property because they’re larger. It’s unfair and doesn’t reflect how people actually feel about a property.

Fraudulent Behavior

There are companies whom you can pay to write reviews about your business. They use sophisticated methods to trick TA into thinking they’re legitimate reviews. Not only will they write positive reviews for you business, but they’ll write negative reviews for your competitors. This is highly unethical, yet all too common on the site. TA does not always take down reported posts, and sometimes competitors will report your genuine positive reviews as fraudulent–which TA then takes down. This in turn affects scores, rankings, and a traveler’s ability to find the right businesses.

Mafia Tendencies

Many have criticized TripAdvisor and Yelp for acting like the Internet mafia. Businesses have no say in whether or not they show up on these sites. It is not secret that these sites offer advertising services for their business listings. It is unknown exactly what happens when a business decides not to pay these sites for their services. While the sites deny it, many notice that negative reviews appear and rankings drop after they decide not to pay. We’re not making a claim one way or the other, but the sites’ business ethics are often in question. We previously wrote about Yelp if you’re interested in learning more about the claims against them.

What You Property Owners Can Do

What property owners can do to protect themselves against dishonest reviews

Your property is going to appear online whether you like it or not. In order to keep your online presence in check, use these tactics to present yourself in the best light.

TripAdvisor and Yelp

Unhappy, and even fake reviews, can be dealt with. Always respond to negative reviews and use each site’s reporting tools to fight fake reviews. The best thing to do is remain aware of new reviews and act accordingly. We created a guide on how to prevent negative reviews here. You can also read an in-depth guide about responding to negative reviews here.  

Social Media and Travel Bloggers

Travelers are turning to other online outlets to get recommendations and gain real insight to a new location. There is a travel blogger or social media personality out there for every single type of traveler demographic. Identify who your customers are, then research travel bloggers who reach your target market. Ask them to stay at your property and write a piece on their visit. This will give potential guests an alternate point of view when researching their next trip.

Here are a few examples of different types of travel bloggers/vloggers that show how different they can be.

  • Type A Trips: for the working professional who wants their trip planned out to the minute. Literally.
  • DamonAndJo: for millennials: budget travelers who enjoy hostels and spontaneity
  • The Points Guy: for the frequent traveler with good credit. Use those points to save money

Blogs and videos are great because you can hear about a travel experience from someone like you. When you’re on a site like TripAdvisor, you have no idea what their value system is. But, because blogs are built around an individual personality, you can tell if their travel style is congruent with yours.

To find bloggers who are like your target market doesn’t have to be difficult either. Do a quick Google search or browse social media. Travel bloggers are among the most active people on social media, so finding their work isn’t difficult. We suggest following bloggers who resonate with you.  You’ll discover new places and gain valuable information from their point of view.

Bonus: We wrote a guide on how to work with travel bloggers that you can find here.

You’re the Ultimate Resource

Many people use review websites and social media for discovery as well as for reviews. But, make sure that your own online channels are highly visible. This means having an updated website, active social media channels, and a good blog. We won’t pretend like that’s an easy feat, but it will be worth it.

Conclusion

TripAdvisor and other review sites fundamentally changed the way people search for information. In the process, some problems arose. Today, these sites remain a vital part of travel research for people around the world. It’s still possible to find value in them, but readers should understand that every review they read is just an opinion–and sometimes, not a very good one. When travelers set out to research their next adventure, they should consult a number of sources before making a decision.

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