There is no denying that review websites are part of our travel planning process today. No matter whether travellers use Trip Advisor for hotels and attractions, Yelp for restaurants or any of a number of other online resources for everything in-between. It is a documented fact that travellers consult online review websites for an indication as to whether something would be worth the time and cost. Sadly, these websites give travellers and other consumers only part of the picture, and travellers are many times making their important holiday decisions based on partial facts, misleading opinions and even outright lies. You’ve probably noticed some of these inconsistencies yourself, reading how someone raved about a restaurant that you absolutely despised. But how did the review industry get to this place? We’ll first present some of the more common review systems, and discuss the current problems they face. Then we’ll present various solutions to improve the overall critiquing process, especially for food and beverage tourism.
TripAdvisor (Lodging, Attractions (including wineries, etc.), Restaurants & Destinations)
All in all, Trip Advisor’s reviews are not bad. They incent reviewers to write quality reviews and post photos in ways that earn reviewers badges. Still, travellers are overwhelmed at the number of restaurants which mostly seem to have 4 and 5 star reviews. If all restaurants are truly so fantastic, then why the need to review them? The review process affords the everyday person the ability to participate in the process. Where once only revered critics could comment on restaurants, hotels and the like, today anyone can write a review. We call that the “Power of the People.”
Yelp (primarily Restaurants)
Perhaps best known for the restaurant reviews in its arsenal, Yelp has come under serious fire for blatantly unethical business practices, as reported by many media outlets. The service allegedly “holds bad reviews hostage” until a business owner pays to have them removed or buried. Reviews that are two-stars or below are sequestered at the back of the review pages for a particular business, which is what happened to me. In one case, a brand new 2-star restaurant review that I wrote was [eventually, only after contacting customer service] published at the bottom of page 747 of the restaurant’s listing pages on Yelp. For whatever reason, the service did not want people reading the factual account of our visit.
Amazon (Consumer Products)
While Amazon does not offer holiday/vacation reviews, it sells luggage and other travel accessories. And it is a global brand with a well-known review process. Still, often reviews do not get approved for arbitrary reasons. Usually a broad-brushed “Your review does not adhere to our Community Guidelines” is enough to send negative reviewers away, or so Amazon seems to hope. I’m not one to take no for an answer and after months of prodding, I’ve verified that their review approval process is arbitrary at best. Negative reviews that were submitted by me and others who agreed to be part of my informal test, had a statistically lower chance of being published than did positive reviews. In other words, Amazon is happy for your whitewashed reviews, but should you actually have something negative to say, they are less welcoming of your opinions. I’ve even had reviews that were approved vanish a week later, completely erased from their system. Still fake reviews get by. Here’s a recent favourite I found: “Great product. They do what I am supposing [sic].”
Review websites use tools to prevent some degree of fraud. For example, profanity is immediately and automatically filtered out. Yet today’s rating systems cannot yet detect reviews that are clearly planted, either by the business owner or staff, or a competitor. Scathing reviews from misinformed or uneducated patrons or competitors can ruin a small business. Similarly, consistently excellent reviews can support businesses that otherwise might fit it hard to succeed, e.g. with a remote countryside location. Look no further than Magnus Nilssons’ Fäviken restaurant in Järpen, a remote corner of Sweden, that is an hour flight plus an hour drive northwest of Stockholm. Not an easy place to get to, yet the restaurant is consistently rates within the world’s top 50 restaurants by many media outlets.
Researchers at University of California-Berkeley have shown that positive ratings can actually invoke a “me too” kind of feeling in other reviewers, who then tend to write similar glowing reviews. Friends who read the reviews of their friends are also more likely to write their own reviews, the researchers discovered. While someone might be influenced by a review written by someone they know, knowing someone’s identity is preferential in most cases to anonymous reviews.
The Airbnb Process
Airbnb has perhaps the fairest review process. Customers are required to submit proof of identity, which is then validated by an automated third party service. Airbnb then asks to verify your mobile number and your Facebook account. When these tasks are complete, the company has a good picture of who you are. Hosts must perform similar tasks, and of course their rental properties are inspected. Airbnb knows how to find them. Once our identities are on the line, reviewers think more carefully about what they say and how they say it. Suddenly, your review is a public conversation with your host and not merely sour words cast into the black hole online.
Airbnb’s model where reviewers are required to provide their real name and contact information is an excellent first step. If someone is too scared to associate their name with their opinion, they should not be allowed to share their opinion, which could destroy a business. In this manner, we would like to see the review websites step up and take responsibility for offering a trustworthy and useful review system. Review systems are also English language-centric and need to expand to accommodate different languages. This will require more staff who are able to read and approve such reviews.
People are Different
We take our behaviour with us on the road. A pub that suits locals may not impress visitors. Similarly, a winery that wows travellers might not impress locals. In each case, the reviewer will write a review from their own perspective, and draw on their own personal preference and expectations. Review services need to figure out a way to show reviews of different kinds of travellers for different types of experiences. Only in this manner will you know – and trust – the opinion of someone truly like you.
Online reviews serve a purpose and are needed. Still, with the public Internet now 20 years old, it is past time to update the technology, the process and the algorithms that influence travellers so significantly.
Erik Wolf will be speaking at WTM London on the 8 November, find out more about his session here.