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?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend