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What’s Wrong with TripAdvisor, and What to Do About It

Decals in windows promoting TripAdvisor reviews

In the travel industry, nothing can touch TripAdvisor reviews. It’s the gold standard for information and comparison shopping for hotels, restaurants and excursions.

Yet, just below the surface, there are some major problems with the service. There’s a dark side that is widely discussed in the industry, but rarely acknowledged to consumers: there’s a huge problem with fake TripAdvisor reviews.

Exterior of the Hotel Giraffe
How do you know which hotel reviews to believe?

Here’s What’s Wrong with TripAdvisor Reviews

TripAdvisor Fake Reviews

The company has been embarrassed by recent exposes where a homeless shelter was propelled in the TripAdvisor rankings to become one of Britain’s top hotels or a five-star restaurant in Italy that is Michelin quality but turned out not to exist at all.

In 2017, “The Shed at Dulwich” became London’s #1 rated restaurant on TripAdvisor – only it didn’t exist. These astounding stories are rare, although they seem to be increasing in frequency.

However, much more common are the fake TripAdvisor reviews for known businesses. The site has become a place where competitors attack each other with poor ratings and business owners respond by posting their own over-the-top praise.

Since each TripAdvisor review counts equally, each one of these reviews becomes a tactical weapon in trying to inch up in the TripAdvisor star system. In 2014, the company was slapped with a $600,000 fine in Italy for fake reviews, but it doesn’t seem to have stopped the problems.

Chicken and potatoes on a plate
Fake restaurant reviews are particularly common

And in September 2018, a high-profile investigation by The Times of London found that one in three (33%) of TripAdvisor reviews are fake. The company has denied the results of the independent investigation. However, from our experience, this seems pretty accurate.

A second, broader independent investigation in September 2019 combed through 250,000 reviews and found 15% of them were fake. More troubling, when fake reviews were pointed out to TripAdvisor, they acknowledged that 93% of the hotels engaging in fake ratings had done it previously. Translating this, hotels engaging in this practice have been allowed to remain on the TripAdvisor site to continue engaging in the practice.

After many years, the company has quietly recognized there is a problem. In November 2018, they relaunched the platform as a kind of social network. The theory is that people will trust the recommendations of friends and family.

It is still early in the life of the “new TripAdvisor” to determine whether this new direction will be successful. However, by November 2019 (just 12 months later), many of the social network elements have been rolled back and instead sponsored content from advertisers fills the space. It would seem that the “new TripAdvisor” was a failure.

Very Little Quality Control

TripAdvisor seems to rely on software to “review” the reviews. Unfortunately, the software has significant limitations so the result is that there’s almost no quality control: anyone can post anything. As such, the vast majority of ratings come from one-hit wonders – people who have created the account to gripe or rave about a single particular experience (that may or may not have actually happened).

In the September 2019 investigation, 79% of the five-star fraudulent hotel reviews were left by individuals who had no other activity or ratings on the site.

As competitors wage war and businesses respond with their own fakes, you end up with a lot of contributors who have less than 5-10 reviews. Even if the review does come from a real person, atypical experiences receive disproportionate credibility.

Bar in the restaurant Umi
Don’t believe everything you read in online reviews

Comparisons are Rejected

We’re a TripAdvisor “Top Contributor.” They keep sending us e-mails telling us how we rank among the elite of the elite on the site. But we’ve had many reviews rejected. Why? Those reviews have included actual useful information, such as a particular hotel being close to another business or attraction. That kind of context is frowned upon, even though it is actually useful.

Merchant May Be Gaming the System

We’ve stayed at a number of hotels where we are absolutely bombarded by the hotel management to leave positive reviews for them. We had a restaurant offer to complete the TripAdvisor review for us. On our recent trip to San Francisco, California, a restaurant offered us a complimentary glass of wine for completing a TripAdvisor review.

And one hotel in Munich, Germany went so far as to set up a computer terminal right at the front desk where if you completed the review under the watchful eye of management, you’d receive a 5% discount.

TripAdvisor is a Democracy

Every vote on TripAdvisor counts equally. This may come off as elitist, but this is the core incentive that drives fake reviewers. If TripAdvisor employed, compensated, or otherwise partnered with professional or semi-professional reviewers, much of this could be avoided. To be relevant in the future, TripAdvisor needs to drive quality, not quantity.

The idea of a “social network” was an interesting one. However, after 12 months into the new TripAdvisor experiment, the results were yet another disappointment for the website.

Hotel bed
The photos look lovely, but some negative ratings can be deleted — our negative hotel review got deleted by the company. This hotel currently has a 4.5 Excellent rating on the site, despite serious problems.

Negative Reviews May Be Deleted Without Reason

There have been numerous reports of negative reviews being deleted, especially if a business is a TripAdvisor advertiser or engages in pay-per-click marketing campaigns with the company. The company doesn’t want to hurt a potential advertiser or revenue source.

However, this leads consumers to an unnatural and unrealistic opinion of a property through a process of selective omission. Furthermore, legitimate warnings of unsafe properties where rapes and deaths have occurred are also deleted by the company (such as this one).

Members of Congress have taken notice and instructed the Federal Trade Commission to investigate. The chairwoman of the FTC has expressed concern over TripAdvisor’s business practices and a full investigation may already be underway. (Read more details here.)

To be fair to the company, TripAdvisor has a website statement in which they claim to have a zero tolerance for fraud.

The company finally took action in 2018 and sought criminal prosecution of a single individual in a high-profile criminal case in Italy (note: this is the same country where the company was fined in 2014). The company pressed for charges against a man who posted more than 1,000 fake reviews. The man got nine months in prison and a $9,300 fine.

But more importantly, TripAdvisor got a public relations victory in presenting an image of a company concerned by the scale and scope of the problem. TripAdvisor corporate attorney Brad Young said that this action was no less than a “landmark ruling for the Internet.”

Given the scope of the problem, one has to wonder how many more of these cases would need to happen to truly address the issue. And no word from Mr. Brad Young on when we might expect a second prosecution for fake reviews. Given the scale, scope, and severity of the fake review problem, consumers have expected a more ambitious response.

Sign for The Jefferson Hotel, one of the hotels that deserves its positive TripAdvisor reviews
Some hotels truly deserve their positive online reputations

How to Use TripAdvisor

But TripAdvisor isn’t all bad. It can still be helpful if you know what to do. Here are our strategies for getting some benefit from the service.

Ignore all TripAdvisor Rankings and Star Recommendations

Use price as a guide instead. Let your budget dictate, use the search filters for things like parking or pool that may be important to you, and then drill down to read the qualitative reviews for the property.

Don’t Believe Every Qualitative Review

Ignore all reviews from reviewers that don’t have at least 50 reviews. We’ve recently started ignoring all reviewers that don’t have a minimum of 200 reviews. Travelers should also ignore all reviews from people who are from the same city where you are looking (so if you are looking at Chicago, ignore all reviews from people who list Chicago as their hometown). And ignore all reviews without a customized profile picture.

Exterior of the Siemens Med Museum
There are ratings for hotels and restaurants, as well as attractions and museums

Don’t Login and Clear Your Cache Frequently

The reviews are customized based on past search behavior or marketing relationships with the company. You’ll find that the majority of the “Just For You” reviews are based on companies that pay money to TripAdvisor, not that they are places you may want to eat or stay. Clearing your cache won’t stop all of this, but it does help reduce the target marketing.

A second option is to use an incognito or private browser window. This can help provide some additional layer of anonymity.

Don’t Rely on TripAdvisor Exclusively

Use other data sources to supplement your search process. More and more, we’ve been turning to other travel blogs. They are authored by a real person who has real expertise — an authority on the topic. And a good travel article is worth more than all the generic, anonymous reviews.

However, if you have the time or inclination to wade through the clutter, there can be some value in TripAdvisor reviews.

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florent

Friday 2nd of July 2021

Seven years after the original publication of your post, it looks no much positive progress has been done. I would be happy to read an update on the subject... as I have just started to operate as Nature Guide... I wonder if I want to play the game of TA or just plainly ignore another source of stress. Thank you anyway for you independent point of view. It is much appreciated.

Heather

Thursday 22nd of April 2021

TripAdvisor stinks! Help restaurant reviews give the place a health inspection score and the basis of it - is violations identified during inspections. It helps me decide where I don't want to eat. TripAdvisor ignores mouse droppings!

Lance Longwell

Thursday 22nd of April 2021

That's a great idea! It would be very helpful if unbiased, health inspection data were incorporated. In a lot of places, restaurants have to post their grades at the front door.

Kent Morse

Saturday 17th of April 2021

And most importantly never book through Trip Advisor (Viator). Instead book directly with the company and save yourself the 20% commission Trip advisor adds for itself.

Lance Longwell

Saturday 17th of April 2021

Third-party companies (like Viator) often have buying power and negotiate discounts. If you book direct, the owner can keep the full price. We've seen activities offered at decent discounts through third-parties, so don't discount them out of hand. The economics are often more complicated than they first appear.

KCourtenay

Friday 30th of October 2020

TripAdvisor (and ONLY TripAdvisor) crashes my computer every time I try to get on one of their sites.

Lance Longwell

Tuesday 17th of November 2020

The site is taking forever to load these days. They seem to be running a LOT of hidden scripts.

Eric Miller

Monday 7th of September 2020

I've been a sporadic TA user for years, without understanding the nuts and bolts of the business that this article provides info on (thanks for this detail, btw). A recent hut-to-hut mt biking experience in Colorado prompted me to write a review. TA asked me to revise it based on their policies -- they won't accept quoted material in reviews. I revised it x3, softening it each time. I've not heard back from TA x3 so I they apparently won't accept it however soft I make it . At issue is mouse infestations in 3 of the 4 huts I stayed in. One in particular I had mice running over my body waking me up throughout the night. I'm not an infectious disease specialist, but I can do research and learned that my son and I have about a 15% chance of having been exposed to Hantavirus, a disease which has a 36-38% mortality rate. The business brushed off my concerns with "we can't control mother nature" and "that's why we have people sign a liability waiver". And nobody reading TA reviews on this business will know this. So now I know that TA doesn't want to hurt businesses reliant on them, and likely many businesses have learned that TA can help protect their negligences. I don't trust TA reviews in terms of health and safety, and now much more. I'm unlikely to trust it beyond what your article proposes. Oh, and if you're ever mountain biking hut-to-hut in Colorado, watch out for the mice.

Lance Longwell

Tuesday 8th of September 2020

Growing up in Colorado, this is a fact of life. However, most reputable companies in Colorado also make such things known to guests. But you are correct, this is EXACTLY the kind of information that TripAdvisor would filter out. Because of selective publishing practices, it truly is buyer beware.

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