When searching for a hotel or restaurant, you don’t want everybody’s opinion. You want opinions from people who share your taste and travel goals. But how to cherry-pick those travelers from the multitudes of citizen-critics on sites like TripAdvisor, Yelp and Hotels.com?
To find your travel tribe you’ve got to know something about the people who use the sites (which is different from filtering a search for, say, a spacious hotel room or a swim-up bar). Who’s writing the reviews on Yelp? Do they differ from users of a hotel booking site like Travelocity? Or maybe you would prefer a site that aggregates reviews from professional travel writers instead?
It’s not that one site is necessarily better than another; it’s that one is better for you. Below is a guide to help you find it. But first, a note about review sites:
As experienced users know, some reviews are fake and, yes, the sites try to police that. What many travelers don’t realize, however, is that even if fake reviews are discovered and removed, they can still upend the ratings. That’s because online reviewers are susceptible to all sorts of biases including one that Sinan Aral, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, has referred to as “social influence bias.”
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Seeing other people’s positive reviews in turn makes us more likely to write a positive review — or at least one that’s more positive than we might have otherwise intended. That bias “snowballs into disproportionately high scores,” Aral wrote in December in the MIT Sloan Management Review. (Users can also be influenced by negative reviews, he noted, but the effect is mitigated because people are even more likely to “correct” any “undeserved negative score.”)
So bear in mind that hotels and restaurants, like furniture and dinner dates, can look better online than in person — even when they are reviewed by fellow travelers.
▪ Yelp: Users of this local recommendation site “tend to be younger, female, affluent and educated,” according to Nielsen. The reviews are written by people who, as Yelp itself has put it, are technologically savvy, “active travelers, foodies and trendsetters.”
When compared with the general Internet population, Yelp attracts more people who earn $60,000 to $100,000 or more a year, according to Alexa, the analytics company owned by Amazon.com. The same also happens to be true of TripAdvisor (listed below). Yet relative to the general Internet population, Yelp attracts more people who went to college or had “some college” experience, according to Alexa.
More often than not I agree with Yelp reviews. Take a recent afternoon in Philadelphia. Craving a Mexican snack yet deterred by unenthusiastic restaurant reviews, I ended up in the Italian market area in Bella Vista where inside the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Tortilleria San Roman, Yelpers advised picking up “dirt-cheap” hot tortillas, fried chips and, as one reviewer put it, “mean fresh green salsa.” Delicious — and I got to stroll through the market.
▪ TripAdvisor: The volume of reviews here is hard to beat. Actually, it’s overwhelming. Earlier this year the company said it collects more than 90 user contributions a minute.
You can filter your search results for hotels that are romantic, trendy or luxurious. Or narrow your search by amenities, including properties that have a bar or lounge, permit pets or offer free Internet access. But such options are ubiquitous these days, and they don’t get at nuances in service or atmosphere.
When it comes to finding your tribe, the most useful filters on TripAdvisor are the ones that appear after you click on a hotel. Once you do that you’re able to choose whether you want to see reviews for families, couples, solo travelers or business travelers. For instance, after selecting a hotel in Miami I clicked “solo” and was then able to sift through only those reviews by fellow solo travelers.
▪ Online travel agencies: Many booking sites, including Orbitz and Expedia, have similar demographics relative to the general Internet population. For instance, they attract more women and users ages 45 to 54 as well as 65 and older, according to Alexa.
The sites are visually cluttered, which is why I don’t spend much time on them. But if you don’t mind that, there are upsides. You can narrow reviews by traveler type (such as “friends,” “singles” or “LGBT” on Orbitz). You can also filter them so that you see only the reviews by travelers who booked or stayed at one of the hotels on the site. That makes it more difficult for someone with an agenda to leave a bogus review. Proof-of-stay is not required to post a review to a site such as TripAdvisor.
▪ Professional review sites: If you would rather not have citizen travelers guide you, you may want to check out a review site that deploys its own critics. Oyster.com, acquired last year by TripAdvisor, is one.
If you appreciate what popular guidebook and magazine critics have to say, however, try the newcomer TripExpert.com, which debuted this summer. TripExpert scores hotels from 60 to 100 based on expert reviews in places including travel guides, magazines and newspapers. (Well, almost. The site includes reviews from the boutique and luxury hotel site Tablet, which are written by guests, not travel professionals.) The score also takes into account travel industry awards that the hotel may have won. Hotels appear on the site only if they have been endorsed by multiple “experts.”
The site is clean and self-explanatory: Click on a hotel and you see its reviews. For instance, the Hotel Majestic Roma in Italy has eight reviews from Michelin Guide, Fodor’s, Frommer’s, Rough Guide, DK Eyewitness, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure and Tablet. The hotel’s score is 79, which means it’s considered “very good” (80 to 90 is “excellent”; 90 to 100 is “best in class”). It’s like Kayak for hotel reviews. And since hotels cannot get on the site without already having a few reviews in high-profile places, you don’t have to weed through a lot of duds.