When it comes to online hotel reviews, travelers don’t believe everything they read.
Far from it.
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Asked what they thought of property reviews posted by guests online, more than 8 in 10 described them as only “somewhat reliable.” While many of the write-ups are legit, they added, they believe hotels sometimes manipulate the system by posting bogus reviews. Equal numbers of travelers (7 percent) said they thought online hotel reviews were either “very reliable” or “not reliable at all.”
No “be all, end-all”
“I use sites like TripAdvisor to get a temperature or general feel for a property,” says Nathan Kam, a communication consultant who works in the tourism industry. “But I don’t consider it a ‘be all, end all’ source for information. I take what I find there and cross-check it with my other social networks — friends on Facebook, and maybe check in with my followers on Twitter to see what they have to say — and always check with a travel professional or two who might have an opinion. It seems like more work, but it’s worth the time to ensure you don’t end up with something surprising upon check-in.”
Kam’s comments reflect a majority of the reader feedback to this poll of more than 700 readers of this site and Consumer Traveler, which was conducted last week in cooperation with the Washington-based Consumer Travel Alliance.
Some respondents said they use online reviews for research purposes, but not to justify a booking decision.
“I generally use hotel reviews only to verify quantitative information, especially for international hotels,” says Tom Logue, a marketing consultant. “Is there an airport shuttle, restaurant within walking distance, wireless in the rooms — things like that.”
If Logue sees comments that say the airport shuttle only runs every 30 minutes, then he knows there’s a real shuttle, “not an overambitious hotel manager stretching the truth on his website,” he adds.
Reading between the lines
Many poll respondents said they read the reviews with a skeptical eye, mindful that some reviews are authored either by hotel employees or rival properties.
“No one review will influence my decision, I think I’m experienced enough to read between the lines,” says Jack Vanesko, a retiree who lives in Ajijic, Mexico. “I look for a pattern of consensus, especially as to what is important to me. Is it near a train station? Is there access to the airport?”
Still, he’s been disappointed by the resulting booking decisions about 10 percent of the time, a number he nevertheless considers “acceptable.”
For some readers, open participation by the hotel in the review process sometimes legitimizes the reviews, if not the property.
“If a complaint about a hotel seems serious, I’ll look to see if the hotel responded,” says reader David Farnham. “If it didn’t, I’ll scratch that hotel from my list. If it did, I’ll read the response and then judge based on both the complaint and the response.”
Others don’t bother reading the reviews, focusing instead on the number of stars a property has.
“I think the real indicator is to look for consistency in the reviews,” says Bryan Neft. “If there are 100 reviews and 95 are 5-star reviews, then you have a pretty good indicator that the place is reliably good. But, if there are evenly mixed reviews in all star categories, then you may have a place that is inconsistent. If there are a few low-star reviews, I will look at them to see if there are any real problems with the property, which is rarely the case.”
The guests who post to online review sites acknowledge they are imperfect.
“What I have tended to see is a mixture of both really positive and really negative reviews,” says Peter DeForest, an occasional poster to TripAdvisor. “Which makes, sense since you would need to feel strongly to make the effort to post a review. If you were ambivalent, why would you post?
What do the results mean?
Contrary to what some travel experts claim, user-generated hotel reviews have an important place in the universe of travel content, although it may not be the place these sites covet. Far from being definitive guides that speak authoritatively about the quality of a hotel or resort, their user-generated comments are read critically by travelers, aggregated and then weighted against multiple other criteria before a booking decision is made.