Farhad Manjoo has posted a good article in Salon on why online review sites for restaurants, hotels, books, and cafes disappoint. On a recent visit to a cafe in Sausalito, California, he found the food so-so, even though the reviews promised the best breakfast in town.
There’s nothing new about this. A lot of people who have booked hotels based on glowing reviews on Tripadvisor, have found their holidays or weekends completely ruined by unfriendly hoteliers, noise, dirty rooms and worse.
I’ve been to restaurants highly rated on Iens, a Dutch restaurant site, only to be terribly disappointed. I realized that it’s easy for friends and family of the hotel or restaurant owner to post glowing reviews. The best way to judge a restaurant is to see over a period of several months what people wrote. I still go to Iens because there’s nothing else. And so it is with Tripadvisor and Yelp. There’s nothing else – yet.
Another problem with mass review sites like Tripadvisor is that for the boutique hotels and B&Bs which will never receive the numbers of visitors that a Marriott does, you will get few or no reviews. This is logical since the hotel or B&B has only perhaps 5 rooms. So if one person had a great (or awful) experience out of the 100 people who went to that B&B this year, is that representative of the experience? Mass market review sites work only for mass market locations (chain hotels, chain restaurants, chain stores).
The Salon article also mentions that most people don’t bother posting reviews unless they had a terrible experience or a fantastic one. So reviews are skewed towards the extremes.
Who is the reviewer – that’s what counts
I think at the heart of every review is the person who is writing it. The Salon article briefly mentions this, but does not give it the importance it deserves. Today there is no way to sort reviews based upon whether the person writing it shares the same tastes as you. There’s no way to find out if the person writing a review about a hotel or restaurant in Paris is someone who travels once every five years or someone who loves food, travels and eats out frequently, and shares the same passion for Banon cheese as you.
On these mass review sites, all opinions are given the same weight. We know that’s not how we do things in the real world. I would assign far more importance to advice given to me by Andy Abramson about food and wine than to a review written by someone who rarely eats out and cares little about wine.
There are two ways to get reliable reviews:
(1) a website open only to a select crowd, an exclusive club, of like-minded people who trust each others’ opinions; or
(2) taste matching on mass market review sites like Tripadvisor.
Some sites like Weekendhotel.nl, which is run by Willem Vos of Amsterdam, already present only a selected number of hotels and B&Bs (note: there are plans to add reviews here too). Other people address this problem by running exclusive mailing lists (e.g. Suzanne’s Files).
But until someone does (1) and (2), I’m relying on opinions of friends who are in the know, and not on a Tripadvisor reviewer whose idea of a perfect weekend is getting drunk in Amsterdam and stumbling into an Easyjet flight back to London.
Here’s what a friend of mine (frequent traveler, wine connoiseur, fellow foodie has to say):
I have found that the review sites that have user generated content (and that includes Zagat) are far less valuable to me than those written by a single source. The “jury” concept for food, wine, hotels, etc. does not work because there is no consistency between the various people writing reviews and the total body of reviews. People reviewing restaurants were all not there at the same time, eating the same food, or under the same conditions. On the people/review side they are not all at the same level of experience. In the end the user generated content sites are still binary to me. If all the reviews say GOOD or BAD I know to consider the place or avoid it. But if I am considering it, I then do real research for a reviewer who is 1) local and 2) whose opinion I like and trust.
I’m curious to hear what other people have to say about this.