Don't believe everything you read online, especially on user-generated review websites such as TripAdvisor or Yelp, which claim to help you find the best hotels and restaurants.
At least that's the standard warning issued repeatedly by travel experts for the last decade. The ratings are rigged by hotel or restaurant operatives, or by unhappy patrons trying to shame a business, they say. Since the sites make no meaningful efforts to stop these bogus posts, all the so-called user-generated sites should be ignored when you're planning your next trip.
I'm not suggesting the problem of unverified reviews has been fixed. If anything, it's a bigger issue than ever as Americans begin planning for the upcoming winter holidays. More companies are trying to manage their online reputations. Nor have any of the sites developed an effective fraud-detection algorithm that red-flags every bogus rating, as far as I can tell.
I'm convinced that you should believe what you read, or at least some of it, because the reviews might be written by real hotel guests and restaurant patrons, and they can be useful when you're planning your next vacation. I know, because unlike the sites, I've taken the trouble to speak with the reviewers. And I know many are real.
As a "senior contributor" to TripAdvisor, Karin Ross has received luggage tags and water bottles from the company to thank her for her contributions, but she's never been asked to verify if she actually stayed in one of the hotels and restaurants she reviewed. That doesn't bother her at all.
"I take the reviews I read with a grain of salt," says Ross, a volunteer for a health organization in Phoenix. "If you read carefully, you can see if it's falsely inflated or defamed."
A majority of the other write-ups she sees are "relatively accurate" and as long as she disregards the hypercritical one-star ratings and the exuberant five-star reviews, she's confident she'll arrive somewhere close to the truth.
And getting close seems to be good enough for most travelers.
"I've been a TripAdvisor user for years," says Mary Bruels, a retired insurance manager from Gulfport, Fla. "I have rarely been burned."
She says the trick is to learn to spot "trolls" — users who intentionally post views with extreme views that are meant to antagonize readers — and simply ignore them. That's sound advice online, no matter what you're doing. Like Ross, it usually means disregarding the extreme reviews.
"I've been pleased with the results," she says.
More than 9 in 10 global travelers admit their booking decisions are influenced by online reviews, and just over half refuse to do business with a hotel that isn't rated, according to online analytics firm Market Metrix. Alas, it doesn't mention anything about whether those reviews are truthful, or whether the prospective guests even care.
I've asked both Yelp and TripAdvisor about the accuracy of their content on many occasions. The answers alternate between defensive and defiant. The sites are nothing more than platforms for travelers and restaurant guests to leave their opinion, they insist. Besides, they have fraud-detection programs to ferret out the fake reviews placed by reputation management operatives and so-called sock puppets, or employees pretending to be customers.
But when I ask them to share even the most basic details of how the algorithms work, they refuse. To reveal that information would be to help the bad guys game the system, they say. That may or may not be true, but it's also a self-serving response.
The companies also seem dismissive when anyone points out that contributors like Ross, who on a recent day posted 10 reviews (oddly, it didn't trip any of TripAdvisor's vaunted fraud-detection alarms), are essentially unpaid workers upon whose labor they've built a multimillion-dollar, publicly traded business. I wonder how their shareholders would feel if they sent them water bottles instead of dividends?
It turns out I've been asking the wrong questions. People don't necessarily expect the truth when they click on a review site. Truthy is good enough.
Just ask Susan Biederman, a retired fifth-grade teacher from Coral Springs, Fla., and a devoted TripAdvisor user. She says she's "very careful" about the advice she takes from the site. Since the site either can't or won't catch all of the fakes, she conducts her own verification process, which includes reviewing a contributor's social media profiles and reading other reviews by the same author.
A few days ago, when searching for hotels in London, Biederman found an obviously scammy poster who had written "glowing and superlative" reviews of five different hotels in the city. She summarily ignored them. But using the same process, she also connected with a resident of Istanbul when she needed a restaurant recommendation. He turned out to be the real deal, and even helped her by calling the restaurant to make a reservation for her.
"I was just overwhelmed, and that dinner was one of the nicest we've ever enjoyed," she recalls. "What a great memory, not only for the restaurant but also for the kindness of strangers."
Perhaps we should be looking at user-generated sites not for what they aren't, but for what they are. They're useful travel guides that will do the trick until technology delivers a better solution.
Something tells me our wait is almost over.