Good Hotel Guide Editor warns of the folly of crowds and the mentality behind TripAdvisor when it comes to choosing a good hotel.
How does one pick a good hotel? With 340 million unique visitors a month, TripAdvisor would seem to be a fair place to start. UK consumers spend more than £20 billion a year after reading its recommendations and other online reviews.
Unfortunately, the bigger the world’s most visited travel website gets the dodgier it becomes. TripAdvisor says that it uses sophisticated algorithms to screen out bogus reviews, but these defences have been shown time and again to be inadequate.
The reality is that TA doesn’t even check the names or addresses of those who post reviews on its website, let alone confirm whether they have actually stayed in the hotel they are reviewing. If hoteliers seek to manipulate their rankings as many increasingly do, it is hard to blame them when TA’s website is so open to manipulation.
Despite all this, the Competition and Markets Authority found that only a small minority of travellers had doubts about the veracity of the online reviews they were reading. Even that bastion of middle-class scepticism, the consumer organisation Which?, says that 85% of its readers trust what they read on TripAdvisor.
The folly of crowds
Believing in the wisdom of crowds is folly. Repeated consumer investigations have shown that TA’s website is riddled with collusive, fake and malicious reviews. In particular, the rankings it gives to hotels, B&Bs and restaurants are so misleading as to be dishonest. The Guardian’s restaurant critic, Marina O’Laughlin, last month noted that TA’s top restaurants in Glasgow and Manchester were respectively ‘a bog-standard chicken tikka masala-punting Indian and a fairly obnoxious American-style joint.’
Which?’s own verdict after a detailed study of how TA operates was trenchant: ‘When it comes to trust and reliability, we give it one circle—terrible.’
Steve Kaufer, TA’s chief executive, who pocketed $39 million for his efforts in 2013, rebuts these complaints: ‘There are those who say we should engage in greater levels of censorship to counter fraudulent reviews….there still exists a belief that proof of purchase must be presented before a customer would be allowed to express their opinion…..far from catching fake reviews, all it would do is to censor those genuine customers who, quite innocently, don’t have or can’t find their receipt.’
In it for the long run
TripAdvisor has no incentive to change because it is making so much money–more than £150 million a year—from its current business model. I accept that millions of travellers around the world find it useful. And it is undeniable that many hotels see it is as a crucial source of guests. But I believe that in the long term a business that is so careless of its reputation and so dismissive of justified complaints from hotels and consumers is unlikely to prosper.
The Advertising Standards Association forced TripAdvisor to drop its claim that it publishes ‘reviews you can trust’. But that is just a fleabite in the path of this social media juggernaut. The only sound advice for travellers when using its website is beware. TripAdvisor is a bad way of choosing a good hotel.
Do I hear a grumble that this is just a jealous snipe from a competitor? My answer is that the Good Hotel Guide is a small family-run company, which has no ambitions to be in the same super multi-national league. We are, I accept, in the same business of helping travellers find good hotels.
The difference is that hotels do not pay to be in the Guide and can be on our website only if they have a free entry in the GHG’s print edition. Crucially, we know, track, and grade all those who write to us.TripAdvisor, given the volume of its traffic, cannot do this but it could, if it chose, do much more to protect the interests of both guests and hotels. Reputation matters and TripAdvisor’s reputation currently stinks.