Earlier this week, the New York Times published an article warning consumers not to put too much weight into overly negative reviews. But when it comes to crowdsourced hotel review sites, like TripAdvisor and Booking.com, I’m concerned about a different (and equally vexing) problem: overly positive reviews.
In our review-driven culture, we’re constantly asked to rate our experiences. And sometimes — especially when the ratings go both ways — there’s a big incentive to just be nice. (I have a relative who always gives Uber rides five stars…even the bad ones.)
I’m all for niceness — but not when it comes to reviews. After all, if everyone is giving well-meaning (but meaningless) top marks to everything, then what’s the point of reviews at all?
I’m particularly aware of this because of my work researching and writing guidebooks. For three months each year, I spend hours every day scouting accommodations — ringing doorbells, climbing up dreary stairwells, and interrogating hoteliers in my search for great sleeps.
What do I look for when evaluating hotels? Location is key, as are factors such as cleanliness, thoughtful amenities, local character, soundproofing, and conscientious management. I’ll admit that this list can be self-contradictory, and I rarely find a place that ticks every single box. But with these factors in mind, coupled with expertise and intuition, at the end of a busy day surveying options, a few gems usually rise to the top.
Another big factor, of course, is the friendliness of the hotelier. But increasingly, I’m realizing that this one is tricky. A gregarious, welcoming host can be a big plus — but risks overshadowing even bigger minuses. And these days, I have a hunch that the “niceness factor” is throwing off the curve for crowdsourced reviews.
Crowdsourced review sites like TripAdvisor and Booking.com have transformed the way travelers choose and book their accommodations. As a writer of old-fashioned paper guidebooks — admittedly, I’m a dinosaur — I have mixed feelings about this trend. But in the end, I really like crowdsourced sites. I use them often, both in my personal travels and to scout leads and verify hunches in my guidebook research.
I don’t see crowdsourced sites as “competition” to what I do, because they occupy a different niche: Guidebooks provide expert advice, while a crowdsourced site seeks a consensus from an army of amateurs. They’re complementary. Our hunch is that people skim our guidebooks’ hotel listings, then further research their top choices online.
But the crowdsourcing model has inherent problems. When working on a book, I personally visit and evaluate dozens of accommodations in a given destination. But the traveler who leaves a review based on their one-time stay has no basis for comparison. As an experiment, a few years ago I systematically inspected the “Top 10” accommodations from a popular review site in a Croatian town I know very well. A slim majority of them were spot-on. But quite a few were unfortunate outliers. I remember one in particular that was significantly less appealing than its next-door neighbor, but cost far more, for no discernible reason.
After years of admittedly non-scientific testing, I’ve found Booking.com to be the most reliable of the big crowdsourced sites. Until recently, I could pretty well trust that anything above a 9.0 rating was probably a winner. But these days, I’m finding more and more exceptions.
There are probably multiple reasons for this. Some unscrupulous hotels have been known to leave fake positive reviews on some of these sites. (That’s one reason I like Booking.com: You can only review a hotel after you’ve stayed there.) And I know for a fact — because hoteliers have approached me about it — that some hotels try to “game the system” by offering a free breakfast or a discounted rate if you show them a positive review you’ve left.
But I don’t think those factors entirely explain the reliability crisis in crowdsourced sites. Let’s not overlook what I think of as the “friendly host problem”: I believe that “friendliness” is the X factor that can seriously throw off crowdsourced reviews.
When I’m checking out accommodations, I definitely take the friendliness (or unfriendliness) of the hotelier into consideration. I love it when a host who runs a great place is also a great person — as is usually the case. That’s the cherry on top of an enthusiastic hotel recommendation.
But at the end of the day, I have to call it like I see it. So if I love the hosts but find the rooms subpar, I’ll say so. Rick always instructs our researchers, “You have to be incorruptible. Our readers are counting on you.” I think that’s what our customers appreciate about Rick Steves’ Europe: We always put the traveler first.
On review sites, however, I’ve observed significant “grade inflation” for lackluster properties run by wonderful people. On a recent six-week trip throughout southeastern Europe, I had my worst overnight experience at a place with a sterling 9.5 rating on Booking.com. The rooms were grubby and not entirely clean. The carpets were frayed and worn. A drawer handle came off in my hand. In one corner, the paint was literally peeling off the walls. There were water-pressure problems. And the whole place just smelled musty. Simply put, they were not putting money back into their hotel. And they charge higher rates than more solidly run (if not quite as friendly) places just a few steps away.
Re-checking those rave reviews in retrospect, conspicuously little was said about the rooms. Instead, people raved about the “super-friendly staff…they’d do anything for us!” and the “huge breakfast — more than we could ever eat, and they kept bringing us more!” In other words, they were rating the people who run the hotel (who, unquestionably, deserve a “niceness rating” of at least 9.5)…but, crucially, not the complete experience of staying at the hotel (which I’d put below 8.0).
At another place I stayed — in this case, a wonderful property in every way — the conscientious owner told me, “Fortunately, the people next door with the noisy dogs moved out.” Probing for more information, I was told, “Their dogs would start barking early in the morning, every morning, and there was nothing we could do. Strangely, nobody complained. Maybe it’s because they liked us and didn’t blame us. But we knew it was a problem.”
I get it that the neighbor dogs are not the fault of the host. But if I’m reading reviews of that property, and I know I’m a very light sleeper, am I wrong to hope that somebody — anybody — would tip me off?
Look, I’m not a robot, and I know this may sound harsh. And I don’t want to diminish the importance of hospitality — which is huge. But it’s not the only thing that matters, and my “consumer-protection” streak needs to speak up.
At the end of the day, your experience staying at a hotel is shaped by any number of factors. If a hotel has sweet, earnest, chatty owners, but the paint is peeling off the walls and the nightclub downstairs just extended its closing time until 5 a.m., don’t potential future guests deserve to know that? Giving nice people inflated ratings feels altruistic…but you’re hurting other travelers.
That’s why, the next time you’re reviewing a hotel online, I urge you to be honest. Crowdsourced sites don’t have to be purely about promoting hotels — they can, and should, be about looking out for your community of fellow travelers. It’s OK…go ahead and say what you really think. (We do.)
Have you had an unfortunate experience at a hotel that didn’t live up to its ratings? Please share your stories in the comments — and let’s see if we can start a trend toward more honest and helpful reviews.