Melissa Douglas
Award-winning British Travel Writer

Can We Trust Reviews on TripAdvisor and Travel Booking Sites?

Alonissos Island, Greece. Photo Credit: Melissa Douglas

Can we trust the peer reviews that are posted on aggregator booking sites such as Booking.com, Tripadvisor, Airbnb, and Agoda? Honestly, you would like to think so. 

The Importance of TravelBooking Site Reviews

Photo Credit: Melissa Douglas

It is estimated that 80% of travelers review at least 6-12 property reviews before booking their travel accommodation. One in five travelers read more than 11 reviews, on average. Understandably so. 

If you are preparing to jet off on your one annual vacation of the year, and you are going to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on the trip, you want to ensure that everything is perfect. Hotel social media and marketing are nice to look at. However, there is obviously a bias here. The vast majority of us want to know what our like-minded peers thought of the facilities.  

Are the photos dated? Do they fail to give an accurate view of what the rooms at the property actually look like? We’d like to know about it. Unfriendly staff, unhygienic conditions, or vermin on the site? Forget about it. Let’s assess another option. 

Aggregate Booking Reviews: The Opinions of Verified Guests

Photo credit: Melissa Douglas

The vast majority of booking aggregator sites and accommodation platforms have a review facility. Google, too, also now publishes user reviews of businesses and services. The supposed benefit of reading the reviews on an aggregator site, as opposed to on Google, or via a forum discussion, is that typically these reviews are verified by guests that have been confirmed to have stayed at the property. 

This, in turn, ought to mean that we are getting an accurate picture of the situation. There ought to be little to no chance that untruthful reviews exist – either in the form of malicious people with a personal vendetta against the property leaving an unfairly false negative review, or a notoriously bad property leaving repeated positive reviews to offset any prior negative press. So, when you are trying to decide where to stay in Iceland, you can read the opinions of confirmed guests, and filter them by the most recent. 

How Much Weighting Should You Put on Reviews?

Photo credit: Melissa Douglas

There are obviously instances which you should take with a pinch of salt. When browsing the review section of even the most luxurious properties, you are sure to find at least one disgruntled guest. Some people love to complain and make a mountain of even the most minor fault. A small issue that may be brushed aside by some may be exaggerated as though it is the end of the world by someone else. 

What you are looking for is a pattern of negative reviews. If the property has received consistent bad reviews, it’s probably best avoided. If you see occasional poor feedback, more investigation is required – is there a common theme that is repeated throughout the reviews? If so, it seems that there is a clear issue that the property has not addressed. 

Similarly, what is the reviewer’s profile like? Are they a habitual complainer? Doing such due diligence is simple to do while browsing through potential accommodation choices. However, the problem lies in the reviews that you are not seeing. 

The Ethics of Deleted Reviews 

Photo Credit: Melissa Douglas

Travel booking sites and forums such as TripAdvisor maintain the stance that reviews are only removed if they do not adhere to the site guidelines, or they appear to be untruthful, threatening, or contain hate speech. In practice, that seems fair enough. However what happens when your honest review magically evaporates into thin air? 

The vast majority of us are aware of the implications that negative hotel reviews can have on small business owners. Although there are always going to be exceptions, many people do not leave negative reviews unless there is something about their accommodation stay that was really upsetting or dissatisfactory to them. 

A recent Zendesk marketing survey discovered that people who had a negative experience were 50% more likely to share it via reviews and social media, than those who had a good experience. If your hotel experience had a severe negative impact on your trip, you are well within your right to share it. Understandably, you probably don’t want others to fall into the same trap. 

Yet once you have posted the review, you probably move on from it. You never really revisit it again to assess what you have written. Similarly, it probably does not occur to you that it could be removed. However, in the instance that sites such as TripAdvisor do remove a review, the complainant is not notified. 

Disappearing Reviews: A Case Study 

Photo Credit: Melissa Douglas

Recently, I had an extremely negative experience at a property in Skopelos town, Greece. The property, named Perivoli Holiday Studios had an abundance of issues. Rats were found both alive and dead around the property grounds. The latter were not removed and instead, were simply left to rot and attract flies. 

None of the lights worked in the room bar the oven light – an odd light switch to have to use as your primary light source during your vacation! The bathroom window was broken and slammed open and closed in the wind. This was not only a safety issue for a solo female traveler, it also resulted in mice, geckos, and all sorts of creatures doing a flying trapeze act through the window. After reporting the window, the host simply came and stuffed toilet paper in the corner of it to stop it from blowing open. 

Photo credit: Melissa Douglas
Mice and rats were found around the property interiors and grounds

I checked out, switched properties, and left a negative review. Instead of accepting the review, the hotel owner contacted me via my personal social media, harassing me with a plethora of personal insults. “What kind of Travel Writer visits Skopelos island at this time of year?” he mocked. “Not a very successful one!”  

Photo Credit: Melissa Douglas
Ongoing harassment from the property owner resulted in the police being contacted. However, TripAdvisor removed the negative review

He told me that I was such a horrible person for leaving the review, that it was a good job I did not have children. “You should really think about if you want to have children with this attitude” He snapped. He proceeded to mock my job, and my character, before implying that I left the property because I was poor and could not afford to pay for it. 

I was absolutely dumbfounded and furious. After blocking the individual, I kept being harassed by his friends and associates on various social media platforms – something that made me extremely stressed. I was well within my rights to leave a review.  

Instead of taking the comments on board, responding politely, or even privately contacting the aggregate sites to say that he disagreed with my comments, he resulted in abuse and harassment. I contacted the Greek tourist police, the tourism board, and the sites that listed the property. The tourism board launched an investigation into the hotel proprietor, and several booking sites removed his listing. Rightly so; guests do not deserve to be treated in this manner. 

Photo credit: Melissa Douglas

Had I not decided to continue staying on the same Greek island in alternative accommodation, or had I not worked as a Travel Writer, I would have probably left the situation there and let it be. I reported the business to TripAdvisor. However, after checking back again, my review had been deleted. 

I contacted TripAdvisor and asked them why my report of the business had been ignored, and my review removed. They simply did not respond. I decided to post the review again, taking care to ensure that it adhered to TripAdvisor’s own guidelines and using photo evidence to support my review. Again, it was removed. Why? 

Aggregate booking sites like TripAdvisor may well be a third-party intermediary in vacation property bookings like this one. There may very well be instances where properties kick up a fuss about negative reviews and request that they are removed. 

However, some serious reports, evidenced by photographs, messaging screenshots, and in some instances, police reports, should not be cast aside as a “tit for tat”. The complainant has every right for their opinion to be heard. Removing all evidence of the review simply allows the accommodation owner to cast it aside and continue operating in the same manner when future guests arrive. 

Serious Allegations are Not Documented

Photo Credit: Melissa Douglas

The removal of honest TripAdvisor reviews is not something new. Back in 2017, TripAdvisor was exposed by various news outlets, past users, and investigators to have removed reviews containing details of rape, sexual harassment, and abuse

Reviews containing details of sexual assault were removed by TripAdvisor citing that they were “hearsay” or “inappropriate for a family-friendly site” demonstrating an alarming lack of empathy and accountability by TripAdvisor and its staff. 

Similarly, 2011 saw TripAdvisor change their tagline from “reviews you can trust” to “reviews from our community” following a probe launched by the UK Advertising Standards Agency that investigated the platform’s missing, deleted, and seemingly false reviews. Interesting that the focus from the aggregate site is on covering themselves from a legal standpoint, rather than working ethically to ensure the safe, secure, and enjoyable travel experiences of their users. 

Aggregate Booking Sites as an Intermediary 

The business model of aggregate booking sites is based predominantly on affiliate commission. They list properties and businesses in a specific destination in order to help them reach their customers. In return, they take a small commission from the profits. 

If a disgruntled hotel owner contacts TripAdvisor citing that a specific review is harming their ability to get bookings, TripAdvisor may well be willing to lend an ear. Why? Less income for the hotel means fewer referral commissions for TripAdvisor also. 

There is also the risk of a business “pulling the plug” on their advertising expenditure through TripAdvisor. Businesses have to pay in order to have their property positioned at the top ranking spot on the platform. The hotels occupying the top positions are not there organically, nor are they necessarily the best or the most convenient. They are the ones paying the sponsored advertising fees. 

When it comes to using aggregator sites and search engines, research indicates that over 25% of people are more likely to click on the first result. The vast majority of people click on the first results that they see. They don’t trawl ten pages deep into a search for hotels in Rio, for example. Instead, they start by checking through the first handful of properties. 

Hotel owners, advertisers, and booking sites like TripAdvisor know this. So when a business that generates income for TripAdvisor is concerned about something, why upset the cash cow in favor of a reviewer who will hopefully just “go away” if ignored? 

A trial search for Granada hotels displays TripAdvisor’s “best” and “featured” properties in Granada, Spain. However, there is no disclaimer or transparency on the payment of sponsorship fees from the business to the platform.

Disappearing TripAdvisor Reviews: A Long-Standing Issue  

Various ethical investigations, newspaper articles, and media reports about TripAdvisor and its reviews have popped up over the last few decades. They emerge with a scandal, infuriating readers and travelers and then they disappear back into the abyss, for the matter to not be given a second thought. That is, until some other horror story rears its ugly head years later, to cause another scandal about something that could have been avoided if TripAdvisor were to make some small amendments to their management of properties and reviews. 

Hopefully, in time, TripAdvisor will see the value and the importance of operating more ethically. Ideally, they will do so of their own accord. However, past issues with the website do little but provide one with the thought that this will not happen until some other horror story takes place… 

About the Author
Melissa Douglas is a professional travel writer and full-time digital nomad from the UK. She manages www.highheelsandabackpack.com - a trusted solo female travel website, which she uses as a platform to encourage women to push themselves outside of their comfort zones.
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