We’ll admit it. When we’re planning a vacation, we can’t resist reading peer-based reviews on sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp. While incredibly valuable, unfortunately, some of the reviews are biased, and others are outright fake. So how do you wade through the dregs to find out what you really need to know about your destination? Here, a few ideas to make traveling easier on the most helpful review sites.
Become a skeptic. We all know that some reviews are written by the competition or by the owner’s parents -- in other words, people who aren’t legitimate patrons. But you may not be as good at detecting those reviews as you think. According to a Cornell University study, most people tend to give reviews the benefit of the doubt. Pro tip: Always question what you read.
Identify the character. Every peer-based review board has a cast of characters: the angry customer, the competitor, the business owner’s mother, the public relations firm, the self-absorbed commentator -- sprinkled in-between reviewers that have something worthwhile to say. Skip those reviews that seem to be written with a questionable agenda.
Avoid extreme reviews. Fake reviewers are more likely to write a glowing or scathing comments, but there could be other motivations for the rating. Some businesses offer five-star reviewers the chance to win prizes while, at the other end of the spectrum, some reviewers write one-star reviews because the business didn’t make a concession they demanded. We give a little more credit to middle-of-the-road reviews.
Brush up on grammar. The Cornell researchers found that word choice and grammar could indicate whether a review was legitimate or not. Fake reviewers tend to refer to themselves more often and use more verbs, adverbs, and superlatives like “greatest” or “worst” in their comments. They also are more likely to give commands such as “Don’t eat here!” Look for reviews that use more nouns, prepositions, and adjectives, and that don’t command a user what to do.
Read for details and context. Were portion sizes exceptionally small? Was the mattress hard? Did the restaurant downstairs have a live band that played until midnight? This is the information you want to know. Put what you learn in context, though. If a reviewer complains that an excursion was physically challenging while at the same time admitting he’s out of shape, maybe it’s not as bad as he made it seem.
Consider the big picture. It’s common sense to not give too much credit to one or two bad reviews, but you also want to search for trends in those three-star reviews. Does a significant number of reviewers mention the mediocre food at the all-inclusive buffet? Does anyone give the food positive reviews? What do they say? We also like to read how the owner responds to both negative and positive comments.
Reference other sources. Don’t limit yourself to peer-based reviews. Compare what you read on these sites to what you find elsewhere on the Internet (including sites that solicit reviews only after confirmed stays, like Expedia), in magazines, and in guidebooks. You can also learn a lot by going directly to the company’s website. Is it professional? What’s the tone of its content? You might even want to reach out directly to the staff with questions.
Ultimately, you’ll want to trust your instincts. After all, only you can really judge whether a hotel, restaurant, or attraction is the best match for you.