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How Accurate Are Online Travel Reviews?

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Keyboard computer web siteIt’s easy to find hotel reviews online, but honest, unbiased honest customer reviews are harder to spot. Tech columnist  Phil Baker reports on new findings and reviews the latest technology to see if there’s a better way.

How reliable are those ratings on user-generated review sites? Apparently a significant number are not very accurate, based on recent findings about TripAdvisor’s UK site.  A 4-month investigation conducted by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the UK’s independent regulator of advertising, has found a rash of fake comments and reviews posted by hotel owners and others trying to boost their business and denigrate their competition.

The watchdog agency, whose role is to ensure that ads are legal, decent, honest and truthful, discovered that reviews could be posted by almost anyone without any form of verification. It ruled that TripAdvisor cannot claim that its reviews are from actual travelers or that they are totally honest, and trusted. The investigation resulted from complaints filed by hotel owners and Kwikchex, a UK company that manages online reputations.

ASA pointed out wording on TripAdvisor’s website that reads “reviews you can trust” and “honest” opinions from “real travelers,” was misleading, since TripAdvisor was unable to prove that the reviews were genuine. TripAdvisor has removed the wording from its UK website.

Sites such as TripAdvisor have become a powerful source of useful information for anyone booking travel plans to unfamiliar areas, and there will always be those that try to game the system.

ASA may be right in principle, but it’s impossible to weed out all of the fraudulent reviews. A spokesman for TripAdvisor told me it uses proprietary tools to check the reviews, relies on its community of more than 50 million visitors to report suspicious content, and penalizes businesses for attempts to game the system.

But, as with most review sites, it pays to be a little skeptical and not believe everything you read. Look for an overall consensus and ignore the outliers. My wife and I use TripAdvisor regularly and find it to be very helpful. But we focus on those properties where there are dozens or hundreds of reviews, and are skeptical of those with just five or 10. And we often Google the name of the property with the word “complaints” appended.

A Better Solution?

There’s another option that I recently discovered that’s taking a novel approach to provide more reliable travel ratings. Gogobot, a Silicon Valley startup, has created an online community that’s designed to help its members plan vacations and travel, using the recommendations of friends and associates.

Even though the site indicates that it has hundreds of thousands of reviews, it’s a small fraction of what you will find on Yelp and TripAdvisor. So it’s not as useful for finding reviews of specific hotels and restaurants. Instead, I used it to get inspired by others’ experiences and to find establishments that were well reviewed. Gogobot’s planning tools then let you organize the information all in one place.

Travis Katz, Gogobot’s co-founder told me how the site came about. He was living in London, working for MySpace. While there, he and his wife wanted to explore Europe, so they bought guidebooks, surfed the Web, and inquired as to whether any of their friends had been to the places they were interested in visiting. However, it took them so long to research the trips that they ended up missing many of them. This became his inspiration to build Gogobot.

Working much like Facebook, members post their profile and identify their friends, and enter information about where they have traveled, including reviews of hotels, restaurants and attractions. When planning a trip, they can search for reviews and travel information from a much more trusted population.

While you could use Facebook to query your friends, you’d need to research the opening hours, the address and phone number, and directions. Gogobot saves you time and effort, everything is done for you: all the necessary information you need is synchronized with your iPhone and ready for you to use. And it’s much more efficient to go to Gogobot, which is packed with travel information, than using Facebook.

The site covers more than 60,000 travel destinations, based on hundreds of thousands of recommendations. You can choose to view reviews and ratings of the entire community or just from members that you know. The service is accessed using your web browser or its new iPhone app. You plan trips by selecting a destination and explore lists of things to do, hotels and restaurants, and compile your own list of activities for the trip. Along with each item is a map, contact information and photos, called “postcards,” that you can share.

In my use of the Gogobot, I was surprised to find that many of my friends had traveled to places I was unaware of, and I’m sure those following me were equally surprised about my travels. After learning that one friend spent time in Italy, I called him to get more details.

Lastly, in this age of websites and social networks, a human solution can sometimes be more helpful. Try using an experienced travel agent. Although they may not have been to the exact place you want, they do receive feedback from all their customers, and you can be sure that this feedback is from real people who have no financial interest to taint the validity of their recommendations or complaints.

What websites do you check for travel reviews? Sound off in the comments.

For more information on travel planning and reviews, check out:

By Phil Baker for PeterGreenberg.com. Phil Baker has more than three decades of experience in consumer and computer technology product development and program management. Check out his blog at www.philipgbaker.com.

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