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What’s Wrong with TripAdvisor

The ubiquitous Trip Advisor decals on restaurants and hotels.

In the travel industry, nothing can touch TripAdvisor. It’s the gold standard for reviews 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.

While ratings services can help you identify good hotels from bad, there is a significant problem of fake reviews on TripAdvisor.

How do you know which hotel reviews to believe on TripAdvisor?

Here’s what’s wrong with TripAdvisor

1) There is a major problem with 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 on TripAdvisor, 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 reviews 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, TripAdvisor was slapped with a $600,000 fine in Italy for fake reviews, but it doesn’t seem to have stopped the problems.

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

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.

2) There is 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 reviews 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).

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.

There are a lot of TripAdvisor fake reviewers, so travelers need to carefully evaluate each review.

Don’t believe everything you read in online reviews

3) Comparisons are rejected so reviews often lack context.

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.

4) Even if the reviews are not fake, the 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 California, a restaurant offered us a complimentary glass of wine for completing a TripAdvisor review. And one hotel in 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.

5) But the biggest problem is that TripAdvisor is a democracy.

Every vote on TripAdvisor counts equally. This may come off as elitist, but this is the 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.

6) 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. This leads consumers to unnatural and unrealistic opinion of a property through a process of selective omission. Furthermore, legit warnings of unsafe properties where rapes and deaths have occurred are also deleted by the company.

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.

While there are problems with TripAdvisor, the service can still be useful if you sort through them.

Some hotels deserve their 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.

1) 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.

2) But 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.

TripAdvisor rates not only hotels and restaurants, but also attractions.

TripAdvisor rates not only hotels and restaurants, but also attractions and museums

3) If you want objective information, don’t log in to Trip Advisor 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.

4) Don’t rely on TripAdvisor exclusively.

Use other data sources to supplement your search process. If you can wade through the clutter, TripAdvisor can be extremely helpful.

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What do you think about What’s Wrong with TripAdvisor?

  1. Suzanne Fluhr August 12, 2015 at 11:54 am #

    Agreed, Lance. However, if you read carefully, TripAdvisor reviews can be a great resource. I don’t automatically ignore hometown reviews for restaurants though from people who also review elsewhere when they travel.

  2. Skye Class August 12, 2015 at 1:12 pm #

    This is such a great post, and so true. I’ve had to usually ignore the top 10% of reviews on Tripadvisor to find anything good. Not always, but sometimes. You also give great tips. I’ve posted several reviews on Tripadvisor myself, and I have more helpful votes than I have reviews. But one of the best reviews I put on the site was rejected simply because I mentioned I met the owner of the company! I can’t wait until they implement the changes you recommend. Then it would be like an interactive Lonely Planet, and probably the most definitive travel website in the world.

    • Lance Longwell August 12, 2015 at 3:14 pm #

      Just to be clear, I can’t guarantee that Trip Advisor will make any changes at all. I’m hopeful, but can’t promise it.

  3. Katrina the Two Week Traveler August 12, 2015 at 1:17 pm #

    I review restaurants in my hometown. Why is that a bad thing? If anything, I’d trust reviews by locals more than a tourist who ate somewhere one time.

    • Lance Longwell August 12, 2015 at 3:10 pm #

      Katrina, most of the bogus reviews seem to come from locals (and they forget things are geo-tagged). You get businesses that sign up using their real location to submit bogus reviews of their establishments or negative reviews of their competitors. I’ve found that the majority of suspect/fake reviews (particularly for restaurants) are locals – both the fake positive and fake negative reviews. As such, I now use it as one of my filters. It’s probably the second best way to avoid fake reviews (after my advice for a 50-review minimum).

  4. Erin August 12, 2015 at 2:57 pm #

    I’ll be the first to admit I’ve always been skeptical of TA reviews, especially in destinations where I know the merchants are gaming the systems. In the work I do with destinations, I encourage businesses to build positive coverage outside of TA so the one negative review rolls in, it doesn’t seem that devastating.

    In the past six months or so, I’ve been contracted by TA to write several official TripAdvisor city guides for key destinations. This means I get to give recommendations, based on my on-the-ground experience of living in a destination, helping travelers decide what they should see and where to eat. In most cases, I don’t recommend the top-rated spots, instead I pick the best spots in the city that may be buried at the bottom of TA because they aren’t reviewed as often. When you look at that destination’s page, you will see guides that say “exclusively commissioned by TripAdvisor”. They may be about food, museums, off-the-beaten path, romance, family travel, or some other theme.

    I think it’s important to address the issue of travel bloggers using TA. I see a number of people who take sponsored trips and rate the places they ate at, or the hotels they were comped. That is a clear ethical problem in my mind, and a violation of TA guidelines. No one should be giving a review on services or product that was comped. In theory, I could review the travel services I pay for outright, but since I think the lines get blurred, I just do not do any reviews on TA at all as I don’t want anyone questioning the integrity of my review.

    It will be interesting to see future changes. I know of several other internal projects that really makes me think they are trying to build a better site with more trusted and reputable travel information.

    I also agree with Suzanne’s comment above on not necessarily disregarding hometown reviews. Where I live in Belize, the locals who review the businesses here are the best resource, same as when I lived in Taiwan.

    • Lance Longwell August 12, 2015 at 3:33 pm #

      Thanks Erin. I haven’t seen the guides you mentioned. I’ll take a look. I think how they are handled is critical. From my perspective, TA’s credibility is part of the problem. Anything bordering on an “official guide” from TA is totally suspect due to their “just for you” target marketing. They’ve got two business models that conflict: independent advice, but a profit model of pushing certain businesses. So, while Trip Advisor’s brand is taking a credibility hit, your brand as a writer isn’t. I’d read you and I believe you. And that gets to heart of what I wrote. Trip Advisor needs to get away from the democracy model (every review/vote counts equally) and into the quality model. Several years ago, we met with the fine folks from Trip Advisor. They were wonderful people and we had a great discussion about the site and travel in general. But I didn’t get any sense they are going to move to a more quality-focused site. I hope your prediction of future changes takes hold. The most recent initiative (gamification and push more volume reviews) seems to directly contradict the goals of a better site with more reputable information.

      As for the ethical issue of bloggers using TA. Personally, it’s less of an issue for me. That said, we have hundreds and hundreds of TA contributions, but only 5 in the last two years (and none on anything that would be a conflict). As the quality of the site has gone down, we’ve slowed our use. If Trip Advisor ever gets serious about the fake review problem and they get serious about increasing quality, we’d welcome the change and would want to be a part of the solution.

  5. Philatravelgirl August 12, 2015 at 4:01 pm #

    I use TA but in conjunction with a few other sites for hotel info. I agree to ignore the one offs and look for those that contribute more.
    The part that annoys me is the “just for you” recommendations now as well as the cards from restaurants/hotels/etc to rate them asap on TA. It’s a vis opus cycle of folks screaming to get heard. You can see how it has declined from a must use resource to one that is more revenue driven – I believe Expedia now owns it.
    I like to review the private guides and tours that don’t get much love so that people can find the small businesses to support over the grey lines/hoho buses
    As for local reviews, I’m not bothered by those as I tend to stay in philly hotels/eat locally and if I would blog about it then I can TA about it (when I get the chance).

    • Lance Longwell August 12, 2015 at 8:13 pm #

      Thanks for taking time to comment. I completely agree about using TA in conjunction with other data sources. Trip Advisor can still be extremely valuable if you sort through the clutter. On the hotel front, the thing I value the most are the independent (and unfiltered) hotel photos. They can be extremely enlightening.

  6. Helen August 12, 2015 at 5:18 pm #

    Great post, you two. I know how active you are on TripAdvisor so your tips are really helpful!

  7. merle liddy August 13, 2015 at 11:55 am #

    I visited a very ordanry indian eatery with great reveiws on trip advisor it wasso far of the beaten track that no traveller would ever found it

  8. Suze The Luxury Columnist August 13, 2015 at 6:45 pm #

    Some very good points and I do take Trip Advisor with a pinch of salt, especially if someone has posted hardly any other reviews!

  9. Jane Canapini August 18, 2015 at 11:41 am #

    I am a huge fan of Trip Advisor, but always read enough reviews that I get a balanced view of any property. I especially read the bad ones, to see how the company responds to the complaints. It’s also important to look at the profile of the people reviewing to see if you are likeminded (i.e. backpackers who like hostels may have a different standard than a luxury traveller). Despite the gaming, I still think TA is a valued resource.

  10. Katharine August 24, 2015 at 1:25 pm #

    Thank you, Lance! There are some great observations here and I do use Trip Advisor quite frequently. This makes me think twice about a few things. Thanks for the insight!

  11. RobRob@TravelLatte(.net) August 27, 2015 at 12:37 pm #

    I have had the misfortune of finding out during a stay that a property effectively paid certain customers for positive reviews. Companies that engage in this behavior should be noted, if not publicly shamed. I don’t think the democracy aspect works against TA, but there needs to be a filter. Show me only reviews from “Senior Contributors,” for example. There may be some valid, one-off reviewers, but I’m most interested in seasoned reviewers’ impressions. And I’d go so far as saying they should get rid of the Just For You recommendations completely. I have yet to see one I’d actually choose.

  12. Chris Christensen August 28, 2015 at 12:18 pm #

    Btw, no space in the word TripAdvisor. I am a big fan of TripAdvisor (and have worked there off and on). Fake reviews do happen, but the matter has been overblown. We have found it to be a great tool for finding that small hotel that we would not have otherwise discovered. Throw out the best couple reviews, through out the worst couple of reviews and look for the trends. When everyone tells you it is “dingy”… book elsewhere. When one review says it is near the subway and one says it is far, then you know what question to investigate.

    • Lance Longwell August 28, 2015 at 1:45 pm #

      Thanks Chris. I agree that TripAdvisor can be an excellent source for finding those hidden gems. And I agree about trends, which is why I wrote this.

  13. Carole Terwilliger Meyers August 28, 2015 at 12:28 pm #

    In the past I wrote a few reviews for Trip Advisor but stopped when I realized they gave me no professional credits or links. I still get regular e-mails from them saying I am one of their top reviewers! I think it is because I happened to review a few places that have turned out to be very popular. Wouldn’t it be great if TA realized the value of blogger reviews and actually highlighted and credited them properly? Until they do, I won’t be writing any more reviews on their site.

    • Lance Longwell August 28, 2015 at 1:42 pm #

      Thanks Carole. Personally, I don’t need the credit. In fact, I’d argue that’s part of the issue – their new gamification strategy is designed to drive volume, rather than value. I also wouldn’t suggest that they let every blogger post links all over the place. While that appeals to me as a blogger, it puts the incentive in the wrong place (quantity over quality). I’d much rather have TripAdvisor dial back on the promotions (although the tote bags were awesome!) and focus on hiring part-time reviewers to supplement and standardize their reviews. They can still have “fan favorite” or “community reviews” while having a more authoritative voice for their official reviews (which would be driven by trained reviewers).

  14. Ang September 13, 2015 at 9:55 am #

    I agree with several of the comments given, some reviews seem too good to be true and on the flip side I see a lot of reviewers that only have that one review and they are complaining about ridiculous things. I travel to Sandals in Jamaica a lot and always love the reviewers whining that they booked the lowest level room and then were put into the room they booked rather than being upgraded to a butler suite or bitching about things beyond the control of anyone, my favorite being a reviewer who did nothing but complain that the ocean water was “too salty.” You really have to wade through the fakes and the complainers but I do like looking at TripAdvisor for reviews and seeing if there are consistent complaints running through recent reviews that would make me not want to book a hotel or go to the attraction. I’ve actually been relying a lot more on Yelp recently though I’m sure the same thing is happening there but it seems like Yelpers are a younger group rather than the old stuffies at TA.

    Also, has anyone else found that people on the TripAdvisor message boards are gigantic assholes?! I was planning a trip to Maui several years ago and was trying to figure out the best luau to book and after looking through the forums but not seeing the specific questions I wanted answered I posted a thread, the very first commenter replied “we’ve discussed this many, many times before. You need to read through prior threads before posting something new”. I’m a member of some other travel boards where the same questions do get posted time and again and rather than being complete assholes about it, we start a new discussion or someone will post the link to when it was discussed before.

    • Linda March 30, 2017 at 6:38 pm #

      omg Ang I 100% agree!! Literally trying to organise a trip to Hawaii now and have asked 2 questions that I genuinely search for the answer for hours without luck and anything I found was years old and got the same assholey replies about it being discussed or talking down to me like I’m a idiot. Making me want to delete my account

  15. John October 5, 2015 at 1:57 am #

    Great article. I wrote over 600 reviews and your ignore any reviewer with less than 50 reviews resonates. We spent a year travelling and I wrote many reviews. I also worked out that the hotels or restaurants ranked 20-40 were perfectly fine.

  16. Elaine Schoch October 11, 2015 at 4:39 pm #

    I completely agree that you can’t use TripAdvisor exclusively. Using a mix can help you get a better feel for what’s really happening. And, I totally think TripAdvisor should do some type of partnership with professional or semi-professional reviewers. It would be a huge differentiation for them to market and wonderful service to provide people.

  17. Fernando October 14, 2015 at 11:04 am #

    I’m not sure that you need to take so many precautions to use TA effectively. Sounds like overkill, at least for hotels and guesthouses.

    In my personal experience, any place with several dozen reviews which are largely positive, including recent ones, turns out to be as expected from TA.

    Although I agree that TA could improve things along the lines you suggest.

  18. Bob Juker January 29, 2016 at 1:31 pm #

    Your post on 50 reviews is Not Good Advice at all. I’ve only been to Mexico 2 times. The first a great vacation at a great place, just too short. The next year went for 10 days (1 day was too much !) Resort was an absolute disaster; unhealthy ,dangerous and inconsistent . You better believe I wanted “TO WARN OTHER TRAVELERS ” about this place. The main reason being WE, like others, were sucked in by all the rave reviews. I believe good businesses can stand on their own merits, but people have a right to be warned of “ONES THAT CAN HARM THEM”. This is why I have only” ONE Review”. So your logic is flawed IMO for people writing BAD reviews, but I do agree that the Great ,Terrific , Bla Bla reviews need to be questioned, especially the ones that say I have travelled to (what ever place) extensively for years. And yet this is their 1ST Review?

    • Lance Longwell January 31, 2016 at 12:46 am #

      Thanks Bob. There have been instances of businesses complaining on TripAdvisor about competitors…usually with just one or two reviews. How would you sort out people like you who have had a negative experience and the other fake reviews? We’ve found our system of ignoring all reviewers with low numbers works well for sorting out both the fake positive and the fake negative reviews. It’s not a perfect system, but it gets most of it.

  19. Sharon May 25, 2016 at 3:30 pm #

    I think there are more problems than most people see or know.

    I have had my issues with the reviews and forums.

    Watch out also for those bad reviews written by fired employees.

  20. Jennifer March 9, 2017 at 4:50 pm #

    Great article! I just posted a review that is pending. It’s great for other travellers to “beware” of the conflicting cancellation policy. I made a down payment for a trip six months in advance and 36 hours later contacted the owner to cancel because my fiance lost his job. Trip advisor policy states we could receive a refund minus the booking fee which seems fair. The owner didn’t list any other policy on their website so that’s what I thought would happen. What is actually happening is the owner will not refund any of my deposit! Furthermore, there is a policy on their rental property website now which states no refunds of deposits. Since I left a bad review, who knows if it will be published.

  21. Steven September 4, 2017 at 2:47 am #

    Totally opaque organisation. We run a tour operator in Croatia and would never involve ourselves in fake reviews – we do however get a lot of great reviews (95% excellent score) which is wonderful but there’s a reason for that – we offer a great customer experience!!! TA periodically cull guest reviews – about 20 reviews disappear periodically. They will simply not address our subsequent enquiry – simply sending a template email over and over again to our enquiry as to why the review were removed. Guests have taken time and effort to write the reviews and we both deserve some explanation as to why TA have acted as they have!!

  22. Deborah A December 23, 2018 at 5:45 am #

    Are you kidding me?!? Not only do I use TripAdvisor as a way of scoping out potential places to stay when I travel, I also use TripAdvisor to post reviews on places I’ve stayed in my travels. I’m a single mom in my forties and as often as I can, I like to get away with, or sometimes without, my kids and relax. I post reviews on the places I’ve stayed whether I’ve had a good experience or not and I have nowhere near 50 reviews. You’re saying that people should discount my hotel experiences just because I’m not a professional??? Do you really think that is going to change the website at all?

    Instead of proposing that the average person, which happens to be the person I’m looking for when I’m looking at reviews, not even be counted when it comes to positive or negative experiences while traveling, how about instead recommend that the average person using TripAdvisor be a little more thorough with their review searches and take everything with a grain of salt.

    The average person isn’t stupid. Please don’t treat us that way.

    • Lance Longwell December 23, 2018 at 4:56 pm #

      If TripAdvisor is working for you, then keep using it. I’m suggesting that TripAdvisor doesn’t work anymore for the vast majority of users. And it’s not just me, TripAdvisor recognizes there’s a problem too. Two months ago, they completely refocused the website to become a social media platform (of sorts). It was an attempt to get away from the democracy where everyone gets a vote and instead have users rely more on their friend’s experiences. It’s an interesting approach, unfortunately the jury’s still out on whether it will make it any more useful (and reliable) for the vast majority of travelers.

      Earlier this year, an independent study found that between 30-40% of all reviews on the website are fake. Now, if everyone were just like you, then there wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, they aren’t. On our recent travels, we tried to piece together how many of the reviews were fake (incorrect details, information that was included based on a media story but not an actual person, etc.). Our best guess is that at least 60% of the reviews are fake. For example, we found a restaurant in Wales where dozens of people all described a particular dish EXACTLY the same way (word for word). Or, there was the hotel in South Carolina that had the exact same review posted every month by a different user. There was a restaurant in Chicago that was praised as being handicap accessible, only it had stairs inside. I wish we could say these were unusual, but they seem to be exceptionally common.

      I’m sorry that you feel like I’m suggesting that your voice be counted less. The good news for you is that TripAdvisor doesn’t listen to me (or the experts who have told them the same thing). So your vote will still be heard equally…along with all the fake reviews. I agree with your suggestion about taking everything with a grain of salt. This is exactly why we’ve given people criteria to help them sort through the vast quantity fake reviews. For us, we no longer pay any attention to a reviewer that doesn’t have at least 200 reviews. It has proven to be a remarkably effective way to actually find quality reviews.

  23. Bill February 26, 2019 at 11:26 am #

    You say ignore reviewers that don’t have at least 50 reviews, and you want a minimum of 200 reviews?

    REALLY? I want evals from real people, but how likely is any normal person to write the quantities you recommend?
    In fact if I saw someone with that many reviews I’d be suspicious.

    • Lance Longwell February 26, 2019 at 4:35 pm #

      Absolutely! I want evaluations from real travelers who actually have some real experience with travel. Not someone who is paid for their review or has no basis for comparison. Yes, this automatically filters out 95% of the reviewers – and that’s the goal. Get rid of the garbage and find actual usual information.

  24. Jake March 7, 2019 at 11:25 pm #

    I’ve asked questions on their forum, and some of the people there are real a-holes….

    • Lance Longwell March 8, 2019 at 12:53 am #

      The TripAdvisor Forums are definitely a mixed bag. Over the years, we’ve gotten some great advice there. The good news is that you have significantly less of the fake information that is so prevalent in the reviews area. The bad news is that you’re dealing with people…and all that entails. It can still be a good place to get timely information on a destination rapidly changing (countries in turmoil, how new laws are impacting a particular place, etc.). With that said, we have seen the quality of the TripAdvisor Travel Forums (or Travel Boards) decline significantly in the last few years. We’re definitely using them less.

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