In a recent report by the Wall Street Journal, Fakespot, a website that helps track fake reviews, estimated that more than one-third of reviews on major websites like Amazon and Walmart.com are a sham, generated mostly by robots or just people sponsored to write good reviews. Of course, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise if you’ve ever scrolled product or restaurant reviews.
Last month, BuzzFeed News, too, wrote about the fake reviews that plague Amazon; Yelp has also dealt with controversies over fraudulent reviews in recent years. (And, of course, Airbnb came under fire for its failure to moderate a scam in which “homeowners” intentionally cancelled on guests last-minute—using fake reviews to boost the appeal of their listings to trap them—which we’ve also written about.)
On top of all that, there now might be a good reason to be sceptical of reviews on TripAdvisor, the massive travel website known mostly for users’ reviews of tourist attractions, hotels, and restaurants. According to a new report by Eater, reporter Diana Hubbell discussed several restaurants in the New York City area that are ranked among the best in the city; through her findings, however, some of the reviews for these top-ranked restaurants were worth a second look.
“More than 60 per cent of the five-star reviews on Olio e Piú’s page come from user profiles that have never reviewed another restaurant,” she wrote of one Manhattan restaurant’s page. “… In some cases, identical or nearly identical review text, including the names of servers, appeared at multiple restaurants. Many of the accounts used the same stock imagery for profile photos, and more than a few seemed intent on mentioning special promotions, such as Olio e Piú’s weekly discount on bottles of wine.”
While the similar text may not necessarily mean they’re fake reviews, it became even more suspect that many of the five-star reviewers exclusively rated only other restaurants owned by that same restaurant.
To top it all off, TripAdvisor rankings are also incredibly easy to manipulate, too—this Vice UK story proved that very few highly-rated reviews can go a long way. Take, for instance, the current top-rated restaurant in San Francisco on TripAdvisor which has just 185 reviews, as compared to 1,128 for the second-ranked restaurant. (73 of its 185 listed reviews are written by users with no other reviews on the site.) The top-rated restaurant in Miami has 197 reviews, while the second has nearly 4,000.
But this isn’t just a problem for TripAdvisor. Yelp also has this issue, but TripAdvisor places a higher priority on its ranking system which makes for a more flawed experience for its users.
Look out for repetitive words and cross-check reviews
What does this mean for you? Well, as we’ve written before, it’s always good to practice some healthy amount of scepticism with review sites. Repetition of certain words or phrases generally might be a sign you’re reading scammy reviews. And those that seem to point out certain deals, promotions or offers, without being prompted, might also be a sign you’re dealing with a fake user.
And cross-check whenever possible; subreddits via Reddit devoted to certain cities or countries can help you find restaurants or otherwise find local attractions. (Both Eater and Bon Appetit are helpful for finding local spots, too.) But TripAdvisor is also still a good resource, especially for hotel searches. Personally, I’m much less inclined to use it for restaurants, as it does heavily skew toward reviews by travellers and not necessarily those by locals, as we’ve mentioned.
And while we’re at it, if you’re looking to avoid tourist traps in general, here’s our guide to travelling like an actual local.
This article was originally published in December 2019.