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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.

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.

The latest from the company is Tripadvisor PLUS – an expensive $99/year buying club offering people discounts on packaged travel options (not dissimilar from what other companies have offered for free for decades). Travel publication Skift has noted that the company is essentially offering, “room rates that are widely available elsewhere.” But the new Tripadvisor PLUS also nearly completely sidesteps the research/review step in travel buying.

In October 2021, TripAdvisor finally published a transparency report. They officially acknowledged that about 9% of reviews are fraudulent or biased, requiring them to be removed. It’s a global problem and they found fake reviews in 131 countries. The reality problem is still probably many times worse than the company is willing to admit. However, shockingly, the company has not changed model/addressed the root of the problem.

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 company.

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 and how many years it has lasted, 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 exactly 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 (or even a VPN service). 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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G. Oliver

Wednesday 18th of January 2023

Kinda amazed by some of your recommendations. I’m in Playa Del Carmen for vacation and I’ve known many restaurants here for years. I’m a well-known person in the food industry.

I do want to post a few totally legitimate reviews about good places that I know well…but now you’re saying that my reviews should be ignored because I’ve never posted on TripAdviser before?

It seems that you’d be selecting for some fairly odd people who post all the time….?

Lance Longwell

Saturday 21st of January 2023

Let's think about this critically. Yes, I know who you are and you are indeed of considerable reknown. And you know that most guests are happy (otherwise you'd be out of business), but there are always a few people that want to complain loudly for whatever reason and want to share their misery. Could be that person who drinks the WHOLE beer and only after it is done says they really didn't like it and wants their money back. And you also know that many of those complaints aren't really justified. Now, you give them a platform on the Internet where there is no context to validate whether that is a worthwhile opinion. And then you layer in the unethical business owners who add in their own over-the-top self-promotion. And what do you have? Lots of garbage.

The recommendations I've posted we've developed for ourselves based on over 20 years on being on the platform. Yes, unfortunately, that means we'd ignore your well-informed opinions. But we'd also sift out thousands and thousands of others that are worthless. It's a numbers game - how to get maximum efficiency from minimum efforts. Since TripAdvisor won't improve their platform or deal with the proliferation of fake reviews, users need to find a way to get some value from the site...or stop using it completely (which is what we've been doing on our most recent trips).

Daniel Keith Nowak

Wednesday 18th of January 2023

First hand experience with fake reviews. Booked Grand Muthu Cao Guillermo based on four star reviews. The place is barely one star yet folks are still rating this place at four and five stars. These reviews cannot be real as this place is horrible. I came home with an infection that is only caused by fecal contamination of food or water. Trip Advisor is just not credible

Fiona

Sunday 15th of January 2023

The place to look at reviews is on the site of the BOOKING AGENT. Reviews can only be left there by people who have really STAYED at the hotel. On Tripadvisor ANYONE can review without ever showing up or staying. People use Tripadvisor to extort money from hosts. They will leave a malicious review when they find that, having broken contract by not checking-in, they aren't entitled to a refund and are blocked from leaving a review on the agent's site. Tripadvisor is a toxic site.

Jeff S.

Wednesday 30th of November 2022

"A second option is to use an incognito or private browser window"

This option does not protect your identity! It merely prevents the computer from saving your browsing history.

DebDDigger

Saturday 1st of October 2022

From what I see, the reason TA is full of fake reviews is that it concentrates on things that travelers have to pay for. If you can get more money by cheating, guess what will happen. To test TA's worth, I looked up a city that I know well: Syracuse, NY. What a dud! If a travel site fails to list Clark Reservation State Park, a geological wonder 5 minutes (yes 5 minutes) off a major expressway, rarely over-crowded, open all year, and usually free, then that site isn't worth 2 bits.

Despite the need for food and rest, a bed is a bed and food us usually just food. The outdoors is the only thing that can't be replicated in another place -- excepting world famous museums and such. I figure, if none of the 5 or so waterfalls and myriad hiking trails within half an hour from Syracuse are listed, then the same kind of information is missing about other places.

Why aren't they listed and why won't I bother to write up my favorite great outdoor places? Well, on the main page there are 2 tabs for places to stay, a tab just for restaurants, a tab to take you to other travel sites (gee, thanks), and one tab for anything that might make a trip to that location actually worthwhile. I can tell what actually matters to TA. It would be helpful to have, at least, a tab for indoor and one for outdoor activities. So not worth the time.

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