Let Me Whitewash That For You
Why an Overhaul of Online Reviews is Desperately Needed
There is no denying that review websites are part of our travel planning process today. No matter whether travelers use TripAdvisor for hotels and attractions, Yelp for restaurants, or any of a number of other online resources for everything in-between. It is a documented fact that travelers consult online review websites for an indication whether something would be worth the time and cost. Sadly, these websites give travelers and other consumers only part of the picture, and travelers are many times making their important holiday decisions based on partial facts, misleading opinions and even outright lies. You’ve probably noticed some of these inconsistencies yourself, reading how someone raved about a restaurant that you absolutely despised. How did the review industry get to this place? Let’s look at some of the more common review systems and the current problems they face. Then we’ll present various solutions to improve the overall critiquing process, especially for food and beverage tourism.
TripAdvisor (Lodging, Attractions (including wineries, etc.), Restaurants & Destinations)
All in all, Trip Advisor’s reviews are not bad. Their system is also not great. The website incents reviewers to write quality reviews and post photos in ways that reviewers can earn badges. Still, travelers are overwhelmed at the number of restaurants which mostly seem to have 4 and 5 star ratings. If all restaurants are unanimously fantastic, then why do we even need to review them? Personal experience of course. The review process affords the everyday person the ability to participate in the process. Where once only revered critics could comment on restaurants, hotels and the like, today anyone can write a review. We call that the “Power of the People.” However, with such great power comes great responsibility (more later).
Yelp (primarily Restaurants)
Perhaps best known for the restaurant reviews in its arsenal, Yelp has come under serious fire for blatantly unethical business practices, as reported by many media outlets. The service allegedly “holds bad reviews hostage” until a business owner pays to have them removed or buried. Reviews that are two-stars or below are sequestered at the back of the review pages for a particular business, which is what happened to me. In one case, a brand new 2-star restaurant review that I wrote was [eventually, only after contacting Yelp’s customer service] published at the bottom of page 747 of the review pages for this restaurant. For whatever reason, Yelp did not want people reading the factual account of our visit.
Amazon (Consumer Products)
While Amazon does not include holiday/vacation reviews, it sells luggage and other travel accessories. And it is a global brand with a well-known review process. Still, often reviews do not get approved for arbitrary reasons. Usually a broad-brushed “Your review does not adhere to our Community Guidelines” is enough to send negative reviewers scurrying away, or so Amazon seems to hope. I’m not one to take “no” for an answer and after months of prodding, I have been able to verify that Amazon’s review approval process is arbitrary at best. Negative reviews that were submitted by me and others who agreed to be part of my informal test, had a statistically lower rate of publication than did positive reviews. In other words, Amazon is happy for your whitewashed reviews, but should you actually have something negative to say, they would prefer you keep it to yourself. I’ve even had less than glowing reviews that were approved and posted, simply vanish a week later, completely erased from their system. Luckily I keep copies of all reviews that I write. Still, fake reviews get by. Here’s a recent favorite fake review that I found: “Great product. They do what I am supposing [sic].” Almost sounds like a bad menu translation.
Review websites use software tools to prevent some degree of fraud. For example, profanity is immediately and automatically filtered out. Yet today’s rating systems cannot yet detect reviews that are clearly planted, either by the business owner or staff, or a competitor. Reviews in multiple languages have proven hard for these services to accommodate. So far, Trip Advisor is the only travel-related website we know of that allows consumers to sort reviews by language. Consumers are typically not experts in what they are reviewing, unlike how a technology expert would review a product on a website like c|net. So in many ways, travelers today are reading opinions of other travelers who have no professional training in how to write a review or what to include.
Scathing reviews from misinformed or inexperienced patrons or competitors can ruin a small business. Similarly, consistently excellent reviews can support businesses that otherwise might find it hard to succeed, e.g. with a remote countryside location. Look no further than Magnus Nilssons’ Fäviken restaurant in Järpen, a remote corner of Sweden, that is an hour flight plus an hour drive northwest of Stockholm. Not an easy place to get to, yet the restaurant is consistently rated within the world’s top 50 restaurants by many media outlets.
Researchers at University of California-Berkeley have shown that positive ratings can actually invoke a “me too” kind of feeling among other reviewers, who then tend to write similar glowing reviews. Friends who read the reviews published by their friends are also more likely to write a review themselves, the researchers discovered. While someone might be influenced by a review written by someone they know, in most cases, knowing someone’s identity is preferential to anonymous reviews.
Most people who use Uber have no idea that they may actually be reviewed by the drivers themselves. What kind of a passenger were they? Were they respectful? On time? Did they tip? Like it or not, the tables are turned when travelers and consumers become the subjects of reviews, not just with Uber but Airbnb as well.
The Airbnb Process
Airbnb has perhaps the fairest process we have used. Customers are required to submit proof of identity, which is then validated by a third party automated service. Airbnb then asks you to verify your mobile number and your Facebook account. When these tasks are complete, the company has a good picture of who you are. Hosts must perform similar tasks, and of course their rental properties are inspected so Airbnb knows how to find them. Once our identities are on the line, reviewers think more carefully about what they say and how they say it. Suddenly, your review is a public conversation with your host and not merely sour words cast into the black hole online.
A saccharine sweet review does no one any favors, nor does a review that only complains and criticizes. A reviewer needs to present the positive and the negative in a balanced manner. This is how we present areas in need of attention to business owners in the experience assessments we do for travel brands.
What’s a Business to Do?
Deliver on your brand promise of course. You have to earn the raves the old-fashioned way: by delivering. If you provide an outstanding product or service, it will be duly noted by reviewers. If you feel that you get more than your fair share of negative reviews, then engage a professional to perform an experience assessment (what we call a more sophisticated version of the mystery shopper of yore). We’ll sort out quickly what is wrong with your customer experience and customer service journey, and provide actionable recommendations to help you undo the damage and improve your image.
People are Different
We take our behavior with us on the road. A pub that suits locals may not impress visitors. Similarly, a winery that wows travelers might not impress locals. In each case, the reviewer will write a review from their own perspective, and draw on their own personal preference and expectations. Review services need to figure out a way to show reviews written by different kinds of travelers about different types of experiences. Only in this manner will you know — and trust — the opinion of someone truly like you.
Airbnb’s model where reviewers are required to provide their real name and contact information is an excellent first step. If someone is too scared to associate their name with their opinion, they should not be allowed to share their opinion, which could destroy a business. In this manner, we would like to see the review websites step up and take responsibility for offering a trustworthy and useful review system. Review systems are also English language-centric and need to expand to accommodate different languages. This will of course require more staff (or better software) who are able to read and approve such reviews. Ultimately, what others want to know is, “Would you buy it again/go back?” and “Would you recommend it to others?” It is literally this simple, If the answers are not “yes” and “yes”, then that business has some work to do. A global system that sorts this mess out for a variety of food, beverage, travel and hospitality products would bring a sea change and praise from weary and wary travelers around the globe.
Online reviews serve a purpose and are needed. Still, with the public Internet now 20 years old, it is well past the time to update the technology, the process and the algorithms that influence travelers so significantly.