How Reliable Is TripAdvisor, Really?

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?

Is Tripadvisor reliable? 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.

Is Tripadvisor reliable? This was the place where I had the best meal in Vietnam and I definitely didn't (or couldn't!) use TripAdvisor to find it.If I followed the advice of TripAdvisor I wouldn’t have ended up eating here – it wasn’t even listed on the website. but this turned out to be one of my favourite and most memorable meals in Vietnam.

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 in Logroño, where most of the pintxo bars are found.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.

Is Tripadvisor reliable? This is an amazing pintxo from my favorite bar in Logroño. But guess what? This place doesn't even have a Tripadvisor rating!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.

Is Tripadvisor reliable? Hearty local food like this is found everywhere over Spain, but often the restaurants aren't found listed high on Tripadvisor as their ambient and appearance is less appealing to tourists, who in turn don't go and then leave them a positive review.Digging into delicious local stews at a restaurant in Logroño (that I’m sure would never be found on Tripadvisor)

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.

Is Tripadvisor reliable? Restaurants that serve delicious gourmet tapas like this (that appeal visually to tourists) have no problem when it comes to Tripadvisor reviews!
Enjoying into one of my favourite tapas in Seville

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.

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? However the question we need to ask is; is Tripadvisor reliable?

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. says

    Like anything, I reckon you have to use TripAdvisor with care and understanding. Hopefully your post will help people understand. I add reviews to TA, including for my local city, as I reckon I can point out the little places, but as you say, the places with few reviews get ranked low and in a big city even I’m not going to search more than a few pages on TA. Searching TA is pretty clunky too.

    However, I have found some wonderful out of the way places via TA … Places in the ‘burbs or off the main road when we are driving. Yesterday, we were driving back from Beechworth and decided we’d have a cuppa in Wodonga. TA led us to a lovely place way away from where would have ever ended up. A bit of a detour but so worth it.

    You also I think need to READ the reviews and try to understand the reviewer. As you say, some reviewers have biases that have nothing to do with the quality of the place. They want. Cheap burger and chips at a place that serves quinoa salad, they want quick service not slow dining, etc. Sometimes you can pick up the bias, sometimes you can’t.

    Anyhow, loved this post, Cyra
    Whispering Gums recently posted…Monday musings on Australian literature: White writers on indigenous AustraliansMy Profile

    • Cyra says

      It’s true you can find some great places! I have found some great places on TripAdvisor and I love it to for finding out of the way stuff that I wouldn’t have thought to go looking for something in that area, like you said. I agree with you, read the reviews and you can definitely make a better judgement.

      I do like it because I know that even if the reviews can be flawed, it is (I think) the biggest online database you can find and a “one stop shop” for every type of activity in the town. TripAdvsior has been a lifesaver when I have been going to new cities for work and I have looked at reviews for attractions/sightseeing in the town to see what is apparently “the best” to see.

      I can imagine you being an avid TripAdvisor reviewer – but a GOOD one who leaves either good feedback or constructive criticism. :)

      I do try and review places that I think deserve it, especially if they are ranked low, but I always forget about it. Carlos and I found this little tapas bar in Seville once, and it was really interesting but came in at the very bottom of the Seville listings (we checked after we ate there) and we both left a good review hoping to help them but no, it didn’t change anything. It disheartened me a little.

  2. says

    This article was a delight to read and images so delicious. I have water in my mouth. I you aimed at neither but I could not get myself past the where mention cultural misunderstanding imagining myself in Italian trattoria and Tapas bars. And for the sake relevance to the topic. I hate Tripadvisor. Its awful. It has misled so many times especially in south east asia.

    • Cyra says

      The cultural misunderstanding is something that makes me laugh a lot. Not just from reading comments on TripAdvisor, but hearing people complain about why they didn’t enjoy their meal places. meals aren’t served exactly the same as they are at home!

      South East Asia is a funny one. I met restaurant owners there who told me that false reviews on TripAdvisor is rife there, but they can’t help but laugh a little bit when they receive bad reviews from a person that says they are from England but writing in very broken English. I found in Asia too restaurants will put signs out the front of their places saying “recommended by Lonely Planet” or “Top Rated on Trip Advisor” when they are neither. Haha. Good old SE Asia. It is a funny one, but I do love it.

      Glad you enjoyed reading it! Thanks :-)

  3. says

    I absolutely DESPISE TripAdvisor. Not only have they paid Google a shit load of money to rank for number one in almost everything travel related (even when the articles that pop up have zero relevance to what you’re looking for), but the whole framework is ridiculous. Everyone has different standards, different budgets. I’ve seen terrible reviews of hostels for not having service akin to the Grand Hyatt or the Savoy, the same with cheap and cheerful restaurants getting bemoaned for not having silverware.

    Honestly, whenever I search for anything travel related now, I always type -TripAdvisor so that I get nothing from the site showing up in my results. I think even as a guide, it’s pretty useless, because you don’t know anything about the reviewer. Some will be backpackers with low expectations and/or standards, others will be people on luxury package tours who expect their every ridiculous need and whim to be pandered to.

    For food recommendations, I ask friends, or use Yelp. For travel advice, asking friends or reading blogs, or even consulting Lonely Planet’s Thorntree forum, or asking on Twitter.

    To sum up: I hate TripAdvisor.
    Tom @ Waegook Tom recently posted…Arguments About Avocados In CaliMy Profile

    • Cyra says

      Well you learn something new everyday. I didn’t know that they had paid Google for rankings. I get really frustrated trying to google something and only getting TA results. I am going to -tripadvisor from now on, good idea!

      I know exactly what you mean, people have different standards. I have seen the silliest complaints for great family run hotels because people wanted five star treatment. If you want five star treatment, pay a five star price and don’t complain about it affecting a small hotels reputation!

      Local recommendations is definitely the way to go. If I haven’t been able to ask a friend, I ask someone where I am staying, or if I have enjoyed a restaurant or bar ask them for other suggestions in the area.

      • says

        I’m not totally sure this is true … My understanding is that the paid hits appear at the top of your results list, and sometimes at the right, and are labelled AD. The rest of the hits in the results list are ordered according to google’s normal algorithm, and of course Trip Advisor has such strength in the Internet that it is likely to do well in Google’s algorithm. SEO is complex and is not completely transparent but if you have evidence that something underhand is going on I’d like to know.

        As for TA, I agree that friends’ recommendations are the best, but strangers in strange lands don’t always have that option. TA is a tool. It requires information literacy to use. You can’t sift out all the falsity but with some clue-iness you can make some well considered decisions. For example you can often tell if the person was looking for cheap burgers and landed in the wrong place by what they say. They don’t talk about the quality of the burger in a measured way but rant about things like cost, slow service etc. There’s still the issue about low rankings due to few reviews, of course. I have found some treasures through TA, and UrbanSpoon but I find the latter not as easy to use. I’m not experienced yet with Yelp though am starting to see it appear more and more in hit lists.
        Whispering Gums recently posted…Monday musings on Australian literature: The Bread and Cheese Club, againMy Profile

  4. says

    I only use Trip Advisor for hotels/hostels reviews and use the advice the advice of the locals for reaching the best restaurants/nightclubs. However, it should be noted that Trip Advisor is not reliable at all because of paid and fake reviews. I heard cases of an honest businessowner going broke because one of his rivals paid a few dozen of people to write bad stuff about his hostel (without having ever visited it in the first place!)
    Raphael Alexander Zoren recently posted…Los Atlantes de Tula, Mexico’s most overlooked wonder!My Profile

    • Cyra says

      It’s true. I have seen it happen too, (not going broke but losing business) too many times because of fake reviews.

      For hotels etc I actually prefer booking.com (Even if I don’t actually book through them) because the reviews can only be left if you actually stay in the place. I have found that the review scores on booking.com are usually pretty spot on! Same goes for hostelworld too!

  5. says

    I’ve found that Trip Advisor is good for finding places that tourists like, but as you point out, not so great at finding the places that locals actually frequent. Consequently, even if the food served at a Trip Advisor restaurant is good, it’s generally pricier than the little hole in the walls that are just as good (or better!) but don’t see many foreign visitors.

    As an example, take Ho Chi Minh City, a place my husband and I have been living for the past 2 months. Out of the Top 10 ranked restaurants, the first 8 serve Italian, French, American, Japanese, or Indian food. Only restaurants 9 & 10 are considered “Vietnamese”, and one of them serves pho for $6 a bowl… in most local places, you wouldn’t pay more than $2 (and that’s pricey)…

    So, I agree completely that Trip Advisor can be a good way of orienting yourself to tourist approved places, but if you really want a more local experience, you’re better off using other sites that cater more to people who live there (if such sites exist for your area!).
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted…The Art of Ambling in George TownMy Profile

    • Cyra says

      That is actually a very good way to describe it Steph (good for finding places that tourists like). I too have noticed that in big cities in general, the top 10 restaurants will usually be serving food not local to the region!

  6. says

    I always use the TripAdvisor app when I’m somewhere, then I can search (without wifi!!) for places near me, as opposed to places with high scores and whatnot. 9 times out of 10 I’ll write a review for each restaurant I visit (even at home) but if there are loads and loads of reviews then I tend to leave it.
    Charlotte recently posted…Linkies 7th MarchMy Profile

    • Cyra says

      That’s a good way to get some ideas that aren’t popping up in the high search results! It sounds like you are using the website with an open mind and not just going to a place because its the top on Trip Advisor :-)

  7. says

    Great article. It’s true that sites like Trip Advisor and the LP etc mean you’ll often not try something out of the blue.

    Like many travellers I too fall into the category of checking both and seeing what has the best reviews. Sometimes it can be well worth it but on some occasions we’ve been burnt by so called, ‘positive’ reviews.

    An example of how a bad review can be unconnected to the food etc. We spent 2 months in Buenos Aires and had a great parrilla near our apartment, a couple of people had given them one star reviews as the waiters only spoke Spanish and didn’t speak English!

    • Cyra says

      Glad you liked it. You do have another great example. Only Spanish in a Spanish speaking country? Well I never!

  8. Elaine says

    As a freelance travel writer, I’ve been contacted many times by marketing organisations and asked to write fake reviews for TripAdvisor. I always refuse. Some freelancers don’t. So that makes TA an unreliable research source for me. I’ve reported most of this to TA, and they do act on it, but it’s impossible to control when some writers are prepared to do it. I might look at TA for some basic details, but never choose accommodation or restaurants based on TA reviews. It’s infuriating, but I’d rather contact a local and ask them – most people have been incredibly helpful.

    • Cyra says

      Oh wow, I didn’t realise it was that extreme! I mean, of course I knew that people would write fake reviews/line people up to write fake reviews but I didn’t realise that it was such a thing that people have marketing organisations involved. You learn something new everyday. I agree with you – look at TA for basic details but locals are a much better source of information!

  9. says

    Great article, really have hit the nail on the head. Tripadvisor is great to give you an overview and quickly identify places of interest but it’s not genuinely where locals go because there are so many reviews on there now that the local voice is drowned out. For example only 0.038% of the readers of Wikipedia contribute. It’s the same with TA, only a very small % of the readers are locals and even smaller % leave reviews so there voice is drowned out by the tourists.

    Interestingly when people research places to go they use so many data sources whether that’s Google, social media, talking (yes physically talking) to their friends and family or more often than not, taking a gamble and let’s be honest that’s the most amount of fun and can sometimes go bad but when it works out, you feel like you are king/queen of the world.

    I really like your article and how you’ve used your own experiences to figure it out.

    We are actually building an app and site (still in the process) that gets that local data, its just very tough to do but we’re fairly close to the idea now.

    Ill be reading this a lot more :)

    • says

      Hi Ricky, thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you liked it! Taking a gamble is part of the adventure when travelling. I work as a Tour Leader in Europe and often give my groups suggestions for restaurants etc but then say to them that they don’t HAVE to go where I suggest because half the fun of travelling is finding your own things and having your own adventure. I think with the accessibility of information no matter where you are on the planet, people have become obsessed with planning to ensure that everything is the best it can possibly be. Anyway, You will have to keep me posted about your app. Sounds intriguing… I imagine it’s not easy to do. I can’t even think how you would collect local data.

  10. says

    I have seen ones, this goes for accommodation as well, where they will give a low score, complain about the weather, someones cell phone rang, they didn’t like colour of the carpet, ect.. but then in the end say “but the food was great”. Gotta remember these are just opinions and not everyone shares the same tastes as each other.

    • says

      Yep! Expectations are so varied across the world that it’s almost impossible to compare. What one person thinks is great, another person doesn’t, and it’s as simple as that! :)

  11. says

    Yes, thank goodness for Gastronomic Nomad.
    Couldn´t agree more.

    I have often looked at Trip Advisor for Granada, Spain where I live and get completely frustrated seeing my favourite places at the bottom of the ranking or not even on there.
    Some of the Forum posts too are just silly.

    I tend to choose places according to tips from locals or places that look particularly busy.

    Great post! Will share lots…

    Molly

    • says

      Whenever I have looked at TripAdvisor recommendations for Granada I have been overwhelmed, I have to admit. It doesn’t seem to have any correlation to real life (out of the places I have tried in Granada, I do go there every few weeks but you would know way better than me!) and it always seems to be changing dramatically. I guess it could be because there are a couple of streets that are super popular/touristy so other places don’t get a look in? I will have to get some Granada tips off you one day. The only annoying thing is I am always in Granada on Sundays and Mondays so lots of places are closed.

      I agree with you, tips from locals (or places busy with locals) are always the best bet! Thanks for stopping by Molly, glad you liked it :)

    • David B. says

      Haha, I live in a small, comfortably gastronomic city in the SW of France and recently checked out what TA had to say about our restaurants. Like you, I was amazed to see that the top-ranked places were places no one I know would ever eat at and certainly wouldn’t recommend to someone who likes food.

      So on the one hand, Tripadvisor is truly irrelevant to my home town, but I kinda liked that my favorite restaurants were all hidden from TA’s ratings.

      • says

        That’s true – the restaurants not being on TA definitely had its benefits for locals. I guess I just feel bad for the actual restaurants when people avoid them because they didn’t have a good rating online. :)

  12. Eva Gold says

    I like your article. I used to live off of TA when I was travelling a lot and I will admit that in the beginning, I never went to places with bad reviews because I thought they were bad. Then I was stuck in a smaller city once with a total of 3 restaurants and I chose the one that had the worst reviews and guess what? it was one of the best meals of my life! I dissected the reviews and realized they were more personal than anything else – someone was annoyed they waited too long the other person thought the waitress was rude. Actually this is not reviewing the food but its based on a personal and somewhat biased experience! So I started going to places that got bad reviews and I started to realize that actually, they were great places. THEN a couple years later, I opened up a place of my own. In the first few months we got rave reviews and we were even in the number 1 spot in the city for a few weeks. The one weekend, an incident happened and to make a long story short, the person’s husband left us a terrible review and he was NOT even THERE. I flagged the post but TA will not take it down, saying that they allow spouses to leave reviews. I don’t rely on TA reviews when I travel anymore. I always considered them biased and now that I see how TA handles “false” reviews, it has really turned me off relying on these “reviews” when I travel

  13. Mike Robertson says

    Well TA comments are bit side kicked these days with most of the hoteliers.Most of the travllers do not beleive in this either. If TA comments are accurate as they say pople will travel to the best of the destinations and hotels only and all others will be presished. Majority of people travel to places to experiecne what they have not experienced before. Travelling is experiencing cultures, attititudes and differences. Present day travellers respect this and sometime do not compare the standards to thier own countires.

    I feel the customer can contact the hotel management if there is any issue while on holiday and get it sorted out. The hotels must be given a chance to correct their mistakes. When this happens the problem is sorted out and the guest is happy. I feel this is better rather than publishing all your comments globally and creating discomfort for all concern.

    Thank you
    Mike

    • says

      I understand what you mean in one way, but after years of working with tourists I have to disagree that most travellers don’t compare standards. Even if they have good intentions, standards are a surprise for them, even in other developed countries (western Europe is a good example). If they are not properly explained that “that is just how it is done in x country”, then they remain upset or disappointed by a situation

      I also think it is much better to sort out things with the hotel (or any) management, and hope that most people would do the same before going to an open forum, however in the day of online reviews I think that for a lot of people the concept of conflict resolution has been lost. However, I think if they management doesn’t want to acknowledge the problem then I understand why people might go to TripAdvisor etc.

  14. says

    I have been usinf T A for years and years. Once it was the domain of discerning travellers as few people had heard of it. These people were looking for a unique and personal experience away from huge impersonal hotels. Usually their restuarant reviews were balanced and spot on.

    These dayseveryone uses TA….all coming from a wide range of backgrounds and expectations.
    Therefore I find reviews very unreliable and keep looking for alternate review Tip.
    Try restaurants with reviews written in the local language. If the restaurant gets a high rating it is usually god because the review is written by a local who appreciates the local food….doesn’t matter that you may not be able to read the actual review.These reviews are often way down on the T A list for that town.

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