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Still tripping up online

How crowd-sourced ratings are confusing discerning travellers and why TripAdvisor and your bus stop have so much in common.

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by Vijay Verghese

SEE ALSO Travel Gripes | Amazing Holidays

Crowd sourced hotel reviews suffer from serious drawbacks

They have a right to opinions too, but are their'opnions right for business travellers?/ photo: Dorchester

THERE’s something infinitely reassuring about belonging to a group. It could be Mensa, or the Three Stooges. No matter. Man is a social animal and has an ancient built-in tribal instinct to herd. Yet groups – or forums as they are termed in modern parlance – are as comforting as they are confusing. The bigger the group the more the gobbledegook. Simply put, debates can be meaningful and focused when numbers are small, but results dissipate and issues meander as membership grows and, with it, the range of opinion, ignorance, and peevishness.

In the online world, the solution is to quantify everything and thereby attach some sort of scientific significance to the results. TripAdvisor is a case in point. With thousands of comments on just about everything, travellers need to be presented an average score. And this score in turn is open to manipulation by fraudsters and pranksters, or inadvertent misrepresentation by those not really qualified to assess the subjects in question.

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I once read an impassioned review on TripAdvisor where the contributor stated the Holiday Inn Express in Hong Kong (Causeway Bay) was the ‘best hotel I have ever stayed at’. Nothing wrong with that. It was an honest and detailed account. But it was written by a young teenager on his first trip out of Scotland with his mum. Reviews like this are what determine an average score. And it is precisely this that makes it difficult for business travellers or luxury trippers to take casual rants too seriously. Savvy travellers will of course separate the lamb from mutton but many less knowledgeable view online blather as gospel.

{Walk to the bus stop and ask 20 random strangers for an opinion, and you’ll get 20 random views, some sensible, some snarky, some silly....

It’s not that TripAdvisor is doing anything wrong. It is a forum, and an excellent one at that, with several checks. Yet it gets things wrong time and again. Think of it as a ‘bus stop test’. Say you have a frightful headache and your ears are turning green after aliens landed in your backyard and zapped you with a photon laser. You walk down to the bus stop where 20 persons are standing, and ask for an opinion, you’ll get 20 random views, some sensible, some snarky, some silly.

The pitfalls of this approach are immediately clear. A smart person would go straight to a doctor for professional advice, or immediately flush the hallucinogens. Yet when it comes to travel, we seem to prefer mob advice – patently the poorest choice when it comes to judgement. Remember Pontius Pilate and the rabble? Bieber goes platinum while Bach and Beethoven stay firmly on the b-list despite record companies amusingly repackaging ‘Beethoven’s Greatest Hits’. Crowds go for the simplest dumbed down acts. Never quality. Not in the Roman coliseum, not anywhere.

The other issue with crowd-sourced ratings is that the most active people online are the youngest and most inexperienced when it comes to luxury stays, romantic honeymoons in the Maldives, business class seats, or the relative merits of frequent flyer baggage allowances when your wife insists on carting her entire possessions for that beach holiday. This is why TripAdvisor does well with budget, three-star and boutique hotels that attract younger less discriminating customers but fails grievously when it comes to premium brands.

Kids will endlessly upload pictures of cute slippers and soaps to Facebook where it will arouse a huge amount of chatter. Impoverished teens are great brand ambassadors for fun low-end products. Wealthy CEOs staying at a Peninsula or a Mandarin Oriental are less likely to upload pics of their strawberry dessert to Facebook. They might send a nice handwritten postcard – or e-mail – to mum. The online brand amplification is minimal.

Yet, CEOs set the trend for luxe digs, not through FB and WeChat – though some nowadays prefer Twitter – but through word-of-mouth, the old fashioned way. Their few words carry disproportionate weight as they are significant role models with a patronage base. Business travellers will tend to follow this inside track discourse – not disarmingly frank Scottish teens.

Herds on budget tours are not connoisseurs of the experience and to make this point, here are some complaints received by Thomas Cook and the Association of British Travel Agents from irate travellers:

"No-one told us there would be fish in the sea. The children were startled."

"It took us nine hours to fly home from Jamaica to England it only took the Americans three hours to get home."

"The beach was too sandy."

As one Smart Travel Asia reader wrote on our popular Letters page, “The thing about TripAdvisor reviews is that almost everyone who goes to the Maldives for the first time thinks it's absolute paradise - which it is, but depending on what you're looking for not all resorts are created equal.”

Writes another, your “article on fake reviews is so well written and researched, I applaud you for putting this out there. Being from the travel industry, I am always surprised at how much people depend on these reviews.”

Our readers fly on average 12 times a year. They know professional advice when they see it. And they smack our teeth often.

“As I read through the Airbus vs Boeing story I could not help but get the feeling that either this was a press release given by Boeing or that you may have been on their payroll.” Interesting, as Boeing refuses to advertise with us because it believes we fawn all over Airbus. 

“Dear Sir, you are sex maniac.” If only we could work out an average score to help you out…

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