The Trouble with Trip Advisor

For years, we have been dedicated users of Trip Advisor (TA).

Before TA, booking a hotel online was a crap shoot.  I remember a particularly memorable “lodge” in Scotland.  It reeked of cigarette smoke and stale beer and there weren’t any other guests, but we’d already paid for the first night so we were on the hook.  The owner had set up a camp cot with a thin, lumpy mattress at the foot of our bed for our 7-year old son.  Fortunately, 7 year old boys can sleep anywhere if you tire them out.  We, in contrast, tossed and turned on the frigid, dank sheets.  The room was unheated.  Both of us had allergic reactions, either to the stale smoke that saturated the air or to the mould that was undoubtedly growing in the walls.  We wheezed and sneezed by morning.  The owner didn’t look surprised when we told him we wouldn’t be staying for the second night.

That was 20 years ago.  Then I discovered TA, and for 19 years I didn’t look back.  Like the 42 million users who access the website every month, I was hooked.  I wouldn’t dream of booking a hotel or eating at a restaurant before checking with TA.

I used the overall rating as a starting point.  Like any sensible person, I know not to believe everything you read.  I ignored the crazy reviews:  you know, the ones that describe a long sequence of bizarre events and by the time you get to the end of the narrative you sympathize with the owner.  Or the ones written by people who didn’t stay at the hotel or eat at the restaurant.  I read reviews that rated the hotel or restaurant as “poor” or “average,” looking for trends in the complaints.  If I spotted a trend like dirty rooms or waiting hours for food to arrive, I moved on to the next property on the list.  I had a system and it worked really well.

Last year we travelled around the UK.  As regular readers of this blog will know, the service and food in the UK can be appalling.  The TA reviews didn’t help at all.  We went to places that got rave reviews and had the worst meal ever.  Part way through the trip, we discovered that Brits think it’s “bad manners” to write a bad review.  If they have a bad experience, they pay up and move on.

We make judgements in the context of our previous experiences.  If our experiences have been bad food and worst service, we rave if the food is hot and the server remembers to smile.  Brits are not very good judges of food.  As one B’n’B owner put it: Brits are “muppets” when it comes to knowing what good food is.  He recommended the Good Food Guide, which we downloaded as an app and used whenever we could.  The guide lists restaurants that have been reviewed by their team of professionals.  However, the coverage can be spotty, especially outside England, and most of the recommended restaurants are high end.  At least we knew that if we tried one it would be good, which was an improvement over TA’s food reviews.

We also had a bad experience at an English hotel, which taught us a lesson about our own reviews.  Property owners can request that a negative review be taken down and TA will comply without advising the reviewer.  The criteria for taking down a review aren’t stated anywhere on TA’s website.  Apparently, TA is particularly willing to take down a negative review if the property “partners” with TA, that is, signs up for a very expensive business listing.  Property owners also can get your email address from TA and attempt to bully you into taking it down.

Hold the phone.

We started reading up on TA.

People typically only write about very good or very bad experiences.  Those who have a mixed response don’t typically post a review.  Of course, this is a very big problem.  Stats theory tells us that reviews of a property should be normally distributed with an average around 3/5.  But if reviewers don’t review everywhere they stay or eat, the reviews won’t reflect the full range of experiences and the overall average will be off.

Owners are highly motivated to do whatever they can to ensure that only positive reviews stay on the TA site.  Even a half a point difference in the overall rating of a property has a discernible impact on the number of reservations. We experienced one obvious strategy: the owner can request that a negative review be taken down.  Other properties “reward” people for positive reviews by giving them a discount at checkout.

Then there’s the TA “Express” program.  Hotels can provide TA with the email addresses of their guests who are then “reminded” to provide reviews.  The ethics of this process aside, the dodge here is obvious.  The Meriton chain of hotels in Australia was fined for not passing along the email addresses of customers who had complained during their stay.

Some owners are bolder.  On TA the reviewer isn’t confirmed to have been a guest at the property or restaurant.  So properties can hire companies to write glowing reviews for as little as 25 cents a pop.  Up to 40% of the reviews that are posted online are suspected of being fakes.  In Italy, TA was fined €500K for misleading consumers about the truthfulness of their reviews.

We stopped using TA altogether.  Since the negative hotel experience, we’ve neither posted nor read TA reviews.

But recently, we heard about

Fakespot is an algorithm developed by a data analytics company to analyze online reviews of hotels, restaurants and consumer products to determine what percentage of the reviews may be fake.  The algorithm looks at the language in which the review is written, as well as the other reviews posted by that reviewer.  It gives a grade which indicates how likely it is that the reviews were written by real customers.  Currently, fakespot handles data from TA, Amazon, and Yelp.

We submitted the hotel that harassed us to a fakespot analysis.  It got an F, which indicates that many of the reviews of the property are likely to be fake.

Other problems with TA remain, but this program at least eliminates an obvious one.

We’re sold.

Now if we could only find an algorithm that analyzes Trump’s speech.

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