If you are reading this, you have probably used TripAdvisor at some point during your travels. It’s an easy way to consult a user friendly database filled with reviews about many aspects of your holiday destination (or even hometown). Hotels, sightseeing, local guides, restaurants and bars… hell, if it’s not on TripAdvisor, is it even worth going there?
Photo Credit: amy_wphotos
But is TripAdvisor a reliable and a well rounded guide?
Last year I was walking through the back streets of Siem Reap. It was around 7.00 in the evening, a time when the local restaurants should have been receiving their first guests for dinner.
I was in a backstreet away from the main area, and saw a lovely Cambodian family standing on the street. They looked eager but sad at the same time, as I walked straight past them. They were standing outside their small restaurant, nothing flash, but no doubt serving simple and fresh home cooked food.
The next words I muttered were “that’s the effect of TripAdvisor”.
While the food in their restaurant was probably perfectly good, with the advent of TripAdvisor (and of course, guidebooks are to blame here too) tourists beeline for the website’s top ranked restaurants, not giving businesses with one review a chance. Having only one review puts a restaurant at the low end of the rankings, no matter how good the review is.
The problem takes shape in other forms too. In tourist hot spots like Siem Reap, London, or Barcelona to name a few, there are many reviews for restaurants on TripAdvisor. But what happens when you have a city that is not so touristy?
Let’s use Logroño as an example. This is a small, almost unheard of city where I live in the La Rioja wine region. Most of the tourists that come here arrive on the Camino de Santiago (the famous pilgrimage route across the Northern Spain) or are involved wine industry.
I am using Logroño as an example of a non touristy city because I have eaten at almost every single bar and restaurant here, some of them multiple times, and therefore and I can make an informed judgement. Logroño is also a good example because it has a strong gastronomic culture (it won an award for the Gastronomic Capital of Spain in 2012) therefore in Logroño there are many places to eat that are worthy of great reviews.
Calle Laurel, the main area where Logroño’s pintxo bars are found.
Photo Credit: avidday
On the TripAdvisor website there are 204 places in Logroño’s restaurant listings, but only 114 of them have reviews. Majority of these are the pintxo bars that this city is known for.
I looked on TripAdvisor the other day, and in the number one spot was a particular bar on Calle Laurel. Out of their 87 reviews (which is probably the most reviews any bar or restaurant in Logroño has on the website), over 20 of the reviewers had only ever posted one review.
All of these one time reviewers had given “excellent” reviews of this bar. And most of these one times reviewers were local, according to the location in their profile. Now to me, that looks like friends or acquaintances have left reviews to help the bar get to the number one rated position on TripAdvisor. The food is great in this particular bar, I go there myself. It is worthy of the praise. But also there are a lot of other equally good pintxo bars in Logroño.
One of my favourite pintxo bars in Logroño is not even listed on TripAdvisor. Another one of my favourites is listed but doesn’t have any reviews, whilst another two of my usual haunts come in on the last page. These last two were ranked very low, because each of them only had one to three reviews, but all of these reviews were excellent.
The low number of reviews keep these places ranked low on the website, even though their few reviews are very good.
This is my favourite pintxo (baby squid in a bocadito with a nutty sauce) from one of my favourite bars in Logroño that – at least, at the time of writing – was not even listed on Tripadvisor! Photo Credit: Calle Laurel
Like I said, Logroño is not touristy, and locals are not big users of TripAdvisor. Therefore the few TripAdvisor reading tourists that come to Logroño, may continue to go to the top rated places on the website as these are the ones they immediately see when they search for information about Logroño’s restaurants. It’s like a vicious cycle.
This does not affect the business of the pintxo bars so much because they have a strong following from the locals, so they’re not losing business due to having little or no reviews on the TripAdvisor website. However, it may not always be the same for the restaurants.
There is one restaurant in particular that I feel sorry for. This restaurant is not in the area where you typically find restaurants in Logroño, and they are trying to do something different from other places in the city, with different options on their menu and kitsch decor.
By day they serve a menu del día (which is a popular way of eating lunch in Spain) and in the evening they serve raciones (full plates, almost like large tapas). But to me, it is my favourite restaurant to eat a lunch at, because the options on their menu del día are usually different to other restaurants in the city which all serve, more or less, the same thing. It is also good value – 11 euros for first course, second course, dessert, water, wine, and usually they throw in a digestivo too, just for good measure.
This restaurant has 10 good and excellent reviews, but four poor reviews (remember, many locals don’t use TripAdvisor and it is not in a prime location, meaning it is unlikely to attract the attention of passing customers (especially non-locals) who don’t know that it’s there).
As a result this restaurant is rated on the TripAdvisor website with a score of 3.5 stars, and is placed at number 98 out of the 114 restaurants in Logroño with reviews.
But I can tell you that the food and service are both excellent – better than many other places serving menu del día (lunch menu) in Logroño. Yes, even including those places that have high ratings and come in on the first two pages of the website.
But unfortunately, the average TripAdvisor reader would not choose to eat here because it is not rated high.
Every waiter, chef, or any person in any industry (including me!) has a bad day at work. And every restaurant gets bad reviews. Let’s look at the restaurant in Seville that was constantly in the number one position on TripAdvisor for more than a year (and is still in the top 10).
It has 27 terrible reviews, 49 poor, and 133 average. I have eaten there 15+ times, and can vouch that it has been amazing each time I’ve been, but the difference here is that with the high flow of tourists visiting this restaurant and then using TripAdvisor to rate their experience, all the excellent reviews (1,143 and counting) have been able to counteract the poor reviews.
What about the actual reasons that have led reviewers to leaving “poor” reviews?
I have seen too many times a terrible review for traditional Italian trattorias because the service was slow. That’s how the Italians eat. Slow and unhurried. It was a cultural misunderstanding. Or the busy tapas bar that had “very few seats and was too busy” so the reviewer left and rated the bar poor, without realising that the culture is to stand up to eat and not have a sit down meal. And what about a terrible review accompanied by the comment “Well, I didn’t actually eat there, but the manager was rude on the phone.”
How can a reviewer give a terrible review for food, atmosphere and value, if they have not even eaten or been inside the restaurant? Well, they can and they do.
I work in the tourism industry. I have people asking me to review their business that I have never been to. I’ve seen restauranteurs I know get “terrible” reviews left by competition and other people who have never been to the restaurant. Because of my job I have no choice but to eat out every single night for seven months straight, and the remainder of the year I continue to eat out often because I enjoy it. I know what goes on in the industry surrounding TripAdvisor.
But although TripAdvisor is not entirely reliable, it functions well as a basic guide.
If I have seen a menu outside a restaurant that arouses my curiosity, read something on the internet or heard something on the grapevine, I will often go and read the TripAdvisor reviews to get a better feel for the place.
Use TripAdvisor. But use it as a guide, not a gospel.
Do you use TripAdvisor to plan your travels? What have your experiences been like? Tell me all about it in the comments below.