How to read an online review like a pro

Online review sites offer what appears to be helpful information. But it’s not always reliable.

Just a few days ago, Italian authorities fined TripAdvisor $600,000 for failing to adopt controls to prevent false reviews, while at the same time promoting the site’s content as “authentic and genuine.”

Still, you shouldn’t write off every online review you see. Some of the write-ups, such as the ones you might find (ahem) on our new consumer advocacy forums, could save your next trip.

Instead, learn to read the reviews. It’s not hard.

Remember, user-generated reviews are just single data points you use to make a booking decision. Individually, the recommendations may not be reliable, but put them together and they may guide you to a reliable recommendation.

Here are some methods used by smart travelers to distinguish the true reviews from the false ones.

Disregard the top and bottom 5 percent of the reviews.
Assume that the top reviews are written by employees or relatives of employees and that the bottom 5 percent are penned by competitors. The rest are probably submitted by real travelers.

Weed out the ones you’re likely to disagree with.
If someone posts a favorable review about a restaurant or hotel you’re considering, check the person’s previous posts. If that same person has reviewed another establishment you’ve been to, and you disagree with what they’ve written, odds are good that you’ll also have a problem with the current assessment.

Look for suspicious flags the “algorithm” missed.
The review sites’ vaunted fraud-detection algorithms – programs designed to identify fake reviews — are often unreliable. If you see an obviously suspicious account (for example, someone who only posts once with something very positive or very negative), then ignore the advice—it might be bogus.

Watch for a reaction from the business.
If a hotel or restaurant responds to negative reviews in a responsible and non-dismissive way, it’s hard evidence the owners care what customers think and will try to do better. That’s a good sign.

But how to you read the most popular review sites? For example, what’s going on behind the scenes at a place like TripAdvisor? I asked.

On TripAdvisor, you’re the final filter

Any TripAdvisor employee will tell you that its review algorithm — the program that determines which reviews to publish — is considered “highly” confidential. “So anyone who says they know how it works is either probably exaggerating or violating a nondisclosure agreement,” says one insider.

Here’s what we do know: The computer routine rejects many reviews — that percentage is also considered proprietary information — and even more are dumped manually after being read.

Does that mean all of the fakes are weeded out? No. Until TripAdvisor puts a system in place that verifies the identities of reviewers, some bogus reviews will continue to appear.

In other words, you have to be the final filter: the person who says “I believe this review” or “I don’t believe this review.”

“Look for excessive adjectives,” says the insider. “If every other line is ‘superb’ ‘wonderful’ ‘outstanding’ — or, conversely, ‘abysmal’, ‘horrific’, ‘disgusting’, I either suspect a fake or someone who had unreasonable expectations.”

Experienced review-readers also pay little or no attention to someone who has only one review. “It carries very little weight,” says the TripAdvisor insider. Bonus points if the review has a photo. Those are harder to fake.

Also, look for a practice called “pumping and dumping.”

“A run of reviews that are out of trend, where the hotel averages three or four stars and suddenly there are ten five-star reviews in two days indicates to me that someone is pumping or dumping the rankings,” says the insider. “If they are all first reviews or feature similar text, red alert!”

By the way, look at the “trending now” feature on the navigation bar of each destination, which will show all of the movers. For example, if you click on the Paris page and then look at the navigational bar, you can see which hotels are hot.

“That is a very good sign, if a property starts emerging in a destination with a good history of solid reviews it is trending upwards,” says a TripAdvisor employee.

None of the sources I spoke with recommended that you ever make a booking decision based on a single review or even on a larger group of reviews. Instead, consider these ratings as a part in your vacation selection decision. It’s still too easy to rig TripAdvisor’s reviews. You’ve been warned.

Read this before you call for Yelp

Like TripAdvisor, Yelp is something of a black box when it comes to understanding how it handles reviews. Users say its fraud-detection algorithm is suspicious of people with only one review, new users and biased against positive reviews. Also, if you don’t have any Yelp “friends” (people on the network with whom you’ve connected) then your odds of posting a review are said to be reduced.

I’ve asked Yelp representatives about their methodology for verifying their reviewers, and their arguments boil down to this: trust our fraud-detection procedures. We won’t tell you how they work, but trust them.

For travelers, there are ways to use Yelp that may not be immediately apparent. In order to take advantage of them, you’ll want to download its smartphone app. “When using the Yelp in a foreign country, the app automatically translates all reviews to your language so you always have useful and reliable recommendations for local businesses at your fingertips,” says one insider.

Also, consider adding friends when you’re online, which allows you to see where they’re visiting and what they’re recommending. It also makes it a little likelier that your reviews will be published.

One little-known feature of Yelp is that it allows you to search for a business with an Emojis (symbols). So if you’re not fluent in the local language or if you just don’t feel like typing out a whole word, just type the symbol for what you’re searching, and it will do the rest.

Yelp is organized more like a social network, where you can spend time online interacting with people you know without actually reviewing any businesses. Obviously, knowing the people who are reviewing a businesses adds credibility to what they say — the kind of credibility no algorithm can touch.

If you have questions about Yelp, turn to one of its “elite” members online — their equivalent of brand ambassadors — or to your local community manager, who is responsible for organizing Yelp-related events in your area. Yelp users refer to themselves as “yelpers.”

What if the advice you find on Yelp, TripAdvisor or elsewhere is no good? If you have a problem with the advice offered by someone online, you’re in a unique position to do something about it. Often, you can post a review to counter the inaccurate content, or you can “rate” the review while you’re online.

Feedback is important, no matter where you get the advice. Bonus points if you’re in Italy.

Do you trust user-generated reviews written on sites like TripAdvisor or Yelp?

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