In its 14 years of existence, TripAdvisor has become a leading online and mobile resource for travelers. It contains 170 million reviews, and rankings of four million properties and businesses in 140,000 places. Contributors add an average of 100 new entries a minute.
In theory, all of the reviews are generated by well-meaning site users who have visited these featured hotels, restaurants, and attractions, and are posting their honest ratings from 1 (terrible) to 5 (excellent).
The reality is a little different. On rare occasions, restaurant and hotel owners will fabricate glowing reviews of their own properties to crank up their average ratings, or submit a dismal write-up of their competitors. How can you know which entries to trust? Read on.
Check Out the Reviewer
Don’t trust a review from anyone who has posted three or fewer entries on TripAdvisor—especially if they’re trashing or insanely praising a place. At best, their opinions are dubious because they have no track record, and at worst they’re posting with a hidden agenda. The most trustworthy reviews come from members who carry the senior contributor (17 to 49 reviews) or top contributor (50 plus reviews) tag given to them by the site.
Look for Patterns
If multiple reviews consistently tell you that a hotel’s rooms smell musty, or that a restaurant’s tiramisu is the best in the city, you can trust that these opinions are fairly accurate. TripAdvisor uses security measures to try to weed out fraud, so mass fabrications of this kind are unlikely.
Look Closer at the Little Guy
A joint study by researchers at Yale, USC, and Dartmouth found that small, independent hotels go to much greater lengths to rig their rankings in TripAdvisor than the big chains do. The little guys have “significantly more five star reviews,” and their neighbors far more one stars, it observes. The conclusion: “These smaller hotels do, then, appear to be manipulating reviews to boost themselves and hurt their competitors.” Cross reference a small hotel's reviews with those on other sites, such as Expedia.
Don’t trust TripAdvisor alone. Use its rankings and reviews to weed out your top choices for places to stay, eat, or visit, and then look at other similar sites or apps for backup opinions and information. For specific hotels, try seeing what the reviews in Expedia and Hotels.com say, and for restaurants, go to Yelp and Urbanspoon.