Snub-jective: I hate Trip Advisor, but I’m stuck with it

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Hoi An Restaurant — An Epic EducationI won’t lie: I hate Trip Advisor. Wait — is “hate” is too strong a word here? How about this: “Overall, I find using the website Trip Advisor to be an unpleasant experience, and while often quite useful, it frequently feeds a regrettable yet deep-seated distrust I have in both the internet and humanity.”

There, that’s better.

You can interpret my hyperbole however you wish, but sometimes it’s hard to believe how fast the site and its influence have grown. Sure, it provides millions of reviews and viewpoints — many of them for places where family may eat, sleep or buy stuff like lessons and entry tickets. And yes, the information is frequently more up-to-date than what you might find in a Lonely Planet or other guide book (depends on what information you’re looking for, really). However, the frustration I feel towards the site comes close to outweighing nearly all of its considerable utility. Especially now that it has become so indispensable to so many.

What I read often tells me more about the person writing the review than the actual hotel or guesthouse I’m researching…

Another admission: I use the site and I use it often. And I’d even venture to say that while it can be perilous for some businesses, Trip Advisor and sites like it might prove to be a net-positive for our travels in the long run, but only just, and I emphasize might. There are too many credibility issues for me to say anything else. 

We check the site mostly for insight into accommodation, yet what I read often tells me more about the person writing the review than the actual hotel or guesthouse I’m researching. The main reason I hate Trip Advisor is because it so often serves as a megaphone for petty people to broadcast how special they believe themselves to be, and the site is often a vehicle for that same type of person to implement vengeance upon some restaurant or guesthouse where they felt snubbed or slighted.

Not everyone on the site writes this way of course, but I come across far, far too many for my tastes. There is good (albeit subjective) information in there, but often it’s missing facts or presenting false or old data. And this is just the legitimate content. There are plenty of bogus reviews on this site, both positive and negative, and if you want to glean any valuable information, you have to spend some time and thought decoding a reviewer’s motivations.

Some lady arrived at this tropical backwater and was aghast that she didn’t receive resort-level service

Travelers are a diverse bunch, as are their desires and expectations. A 20-something backpacker will have a different agenda than a haughty banker’s wife, and it seems that I keep running into more of the latter. The reasons for a bad review are often laughable.

We once stayed at a place in Bukit Lawang, a village at the edge of a Sumatran orangutan reserve. One of the reviews we read gave it poor marks because they didn’t change the bed linens every morning. This is the Jungle Inn, not the Grand Hyatt, but some lady arrived at this tropical backwater and was aghast that she didn’t receive resort-level service. Please.

The dichotomy of compliments and complaints is quite revealing. One person griped that the Jungle Inn was in an inconvenient location, while another praised its prime spot near the river and far from the road. One person was thrilled to be so close to wildlife, while another complained that a monkey stole her cookies.

Subjectivity becomes even more severe when you drill down into the family reviews, because people’s opinions on safety and hygiene get stronger after tykes are born, and long-held beliefs can either change radically during the child’s early years, or calcify into a rigid dogma of what is considered wholesome and what is not.

No two people come from the same place, and it can be hard to see who might have an opinion I can relate to.

A good review can make a huge difference to a struggling new restaurant or guesthouse. Conversely, a well-crafted bad review can cause irreparable damage

So yeah, I loathe using the site, and yet I do. A lot. Perhaps not as much as you (or my wife might), but often enough. Having that kind of travel-related intel, flawed as it may be, can be a very useful thing. More importantly, I realize the value it has for the restaurants, hotels and other establishments we visit.

Perhaps I hate Trip Advisor, but countless millions turn to it first. Even if these stats were wildly inflated (not saying they are), it’s downright shocking that one site can wield that much influence over travel-related businesses. A good review can make a huge difference to a struggling new restaurant or guesthouse.

Conversely, a well-crafted bad review can cause irreparable damage, and for some reason I tend to believe that a bad review — even when unsubstantiated and poorly written — holds more weight in my decision-making than a detailed and objectively positive one.

Maybe it’s just me, but my mind returns to the person complaining about mold and termites instead of the guy gushing over being treated like family. This confusion may be compounded because we’re in Southeast Asia, where I can see how both of these reviews could be completely true and happening simultaneously.

I envision the one-star and five-star reviewers staying in rooms down the hall from one another. Even if they had the same tastes and temperament, there’s still a good chance at some establishments that one dude got the “bad” room — the one last in line for renovation — while the other guy got the room that was just recently fixed up.

By the same token, when “clean room guy” arrives, he is greeted by the mama-san of the hotel, a matriarch with decades of service experience, but when “mold-room guy” checks in, behind the desk is the flunky son-in-law, a misanthrope who married the mama-san’s daughter for an easy job in the family business. Lots of hotel bookings are a gamble like this —especially on the low-to-mid-range places — and many of the reviews indicate how well people play the cards they’re dealt.

Cosy House in Hoi An: An Epic Education

A five-star review is worth much more than a big tip, another booking, an email to all my traveling friends or a gushing post on my piddly little blog.

But I’m getting off-topic here. My point is that there have been many small businesses that we’ve loved and wanted to help. We’ve taken fruit carving, cookingsilver smithing and fishing classes that we still talk about. Also, we’ve stayed at countless guesthouses whose warmth, helpfulness and service made a huge positive difference in our travel experience — places like Kas Komala in Bali, the Cosy House and Hue Four Seasons in Central Vietnam, and Beauty Guesthouse in Ho Chi Minh City. What’s the best way to help them?

Write a Trip Advisor review: a long, detailed account of what they did and why it meant so much. A five-star review is worth much more than a big tip, another booking, an email to my traveling friends or a gushing post on my piddly little blog.

Millions of eyeballs peruse Trip Advisor everyday, and like it or not, that’s where most people get their information. I know it. The hotels know it, and they ask about it. It has become commonplace for a guide, an instructor or a guesthouse/hotel manager to ask if we’ll write a review for them. If we’ve had a good experience, I always say yes.

Have I written these reviews? Not even one. Not yet, and I can’t justify this. I could moan about having a dozen other things to work on. And hey, writing reviews isn’t required, right? That’s what I’ve told myself, anyway. Even when I know that it’s the right thing to do, I still haven’t done it.

I hope to get to it soon, but considering my list of endorsements is now a year old, I have my doubts. What’s likely to happen is that I’ll write short, truncated positive reviews for all the top places on the list in one big four-to-five-star blast. That’s better than nothing, but considering the positive affect that it can have for businesses I like, I should give it more priority, and soon. It’s alright that I hate Trip Advisor, but for now, I’m stuck with it.

Comments

  1. If Tripadvisor rates our (tour operators, hotels, etc) professionalism (and basically we have never asked to be part of the Tripadvisor scene), then how come Tripadvisor doesn’t have to act in a professional way (or even a business manner). Tripadvisor can not be contacted, unless your problem fits their criteria of a problem. If not, they cannot be contacted. How many bubbles would you give a hotel if they made a point of not being able to be contacted?
    I really do HATE Tripadvisor (and I have to live with it too), but I am not modifying my statement at all. And this is from someone who is rated #1 tour (for nearly four years) and #1 Food and Drink. These are what other companies strive for and envy. But I still HATE Tripadvisor and their non accountability, and their total lack of professionalism.

  2. Hi, Jason – This piece made me laugh because it is so true. I especially appreciated the Jungle Inn example and the reviewer expecting resort-like treatment! We see that all the time. Our family has spent the last seven months traveling in Southeast Asia, on a budget, and we don’t expect all things to work (the Wifi goes down, the closet door doesn’t shut, some ants have make it in, the hot water gets shut off at night); and I find it laughable when people expect perfection (and for $25 a night!). There are a whole slew of dishonest, bribed reviews, too; one just has to be aware of that. Like you, we do look on TripAdvisor, but we take all those reviews with a huge grain (or pot) of salt.

    • yes, Cindy, we use still use Trip Advisor. Quite a bit when we’re moving around a lot. But it is only one source of info. Despite its flaws, I still find lots of value in it. I just wish more people learned how to use it properly!

  3. Sharynne Wilson says:

    Do we actually have to use anything? Can’t we make our own decisions on where to eat? I refuse to use TripAdvisor. One company should not be able to make money out of cyber bullying. Positive reviews or none at all. That way merrit on merrit only.

    • Indeed, Sharynne. We do use it here and there, but treat it as opinions and not truth. I do think that it can be a useful resource, but I find it maddening when people treat it as gospel.

  4. Hi Alyson. Yes, I look at Trip Advisor much as I do Facebook: I like parts of it, but hate how it operates, and yet, there is no viable alternative…not yet, anyway. Thanks for chiming in. Have *you* found any better alternatives?

  5. You”re absolutely right Trip Advisor sucks. People are far more likely to leave a bad review than bother to praise a good or average experience. I never use it for myself yet I’m in their top 1% of reviewers. All my reviews are good. Strangely . We have very few bad experiences because we rarely prebook, we turn up and find a place we like. I was looking at a similar site for a cruise ship yesterday, you wouldn’ t believe the people had all been on the same ship, yet one bad food review outweighed all the good ones. That person knew food the others didn’t. You have to watch for that too. My husband being in hospitality, we know all about the whingers and fools who use Trip Advisor for revenge.

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