Can you trust
When Stephen Kaufer was planning a holiday in Mexico about a decade ago, he couldn’t decide which hotel to book, and a thought occurred to him that might have occurred to any holiday-maker: “Wouldn’t it be neat if there was a website where anybody could review any hotel or restaurant and share it with the world?” Wish you’d got in there first? Kaufer’s tripadvisor.com is now the world’s most popular travel website by a country mile with around 60 million visitors a month and growing. But is it really the answer to everyone’s travel-related prayers?
The answer, in a word, is no. So why do millions of people log on to tripadvisor.com every day to register their business, to write a review or to find a recommendation for somewhere to eat or sleep? Perhaps by looking at the good and the bad of this website, we can begin to understand its role in cyberspace.
First, the good. In theory, the website is a priceless platform for consumer power, allowing hotel guests and restaurant patrons to comment on any aspect of their experience, including the air-con unit that grinds noisily through the night and the wrong meal that was served when a restaurant mixed up its orders. Reviewers can also post photos on the website to back up their claims, and they know that after a quick check for unacceptable language, their review will be online within 24 hours. Those who rely on the website for recommendations can also save the $20 or so they would have spent on a hefty guidebook to their destination.
As you might imagine, most guidebook writers like myself view the rise of tripadvisor with some trepidation, even if we are cynical about its efficacy. We worry that our so-called expert status is no longer required and that websites like this will help to accelerate the demise of printed guidebooks. I have to admit I’ve still never written any review for tripadvisor; after all, since I write reviews for a living, to join the growing gang of tripadvisor reviewers (who get gold stars and a tag of ‘top contributor’ after posting a certain number of reviews and getting ‘helpful’ votes) would be a bit like taking a busman’s holiday.
Nevertheless, I find myself visiting the website frequently, both in my capacity as a guidebook writer and to read (and respond to) reviews of my partner’s two restaurants here in Chiang Mai (Ratana’s Kitchen and The Moat). As a guidebook writer, I find it a useful source of information about new places that have opened and old ones that have closed, so it helps me to compile provisional lists of places to visit for my next job. I don’t pay too much attention to ranking, as the secretive methods they use to calculate this bring some surprising results.
Our two restaurants provide a good example of the arbitrary nature of tripadvisor ranking. Both have the same menu, same prices, similar ambience (traveller’s café style) and service. Yet The Moat stands currently at #30 out of 940 restaurants in Chiang Mai, while Ratana’s Kitchen is at #164. The only explanation I can guess for this discrepancy is that The Moat restaurant was opened more recently, and that people tend to visit BECAUSE they saw it on tripadvisor (it got up to #3 a while back), and they are therefore more likely to review it themselves after they have visited. By contrast, Ratana’s Kitchen, which in fact has far more customers, is known through guidebooks so fewer visitors feel compelled to share their experience with the world.
For the great majority of people who use TripAdvisor, ranking is all-important. Since holiday-makers spend an average of about three days in Chiang Mai, they are unlikely to scroll through 940 restaurants, each with between five and fifty reviews, before deciding where to eat. Few will get beyond the first page, so for business owners it’s all-important to hit that top 30. And business being what it is, competitors will try all kinds of skulduggery, including trashing the opposition’s establishment, in order to try to improve their own rating. Probably many of them receive, and perhaps respond to, emails such as I have received from companies like tripadvisorsuccess.com, guaranteeing a bunch of five-star reviews for their establishment which will send them shooting up the rankings—for a fee, of course.
Another factor that complicates the issue of tripadvisor reliability is that reviewers rarely agree about a place. It’s amazing the number of times I’ve read a five-star review (“Wonderful hotel! Best place I’ve ever stayed”) followed immediately by a one-star review (Bugs in the beds—DON’T STAY HERE!!!!!”). So which one are you going to believe? If you’re like me, you’ll probably move on and look for a place that doesn’t attract such extreme responses.
Overall then, you can’t trust tripadvisor, but that probably won’t stop you or me checking out the website from time to time, if only to look at reviews of places that we particularly like or dislike to see what others are saying about it. Love it or hate it, tripadvisor is here to stay.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.