Why Tripadvisor Restaurant Ratings are a Waste of Time

Tripadvisor restaurant ratings waste of time_edited-1That’s a big call, isn’t it. Calling Tripadvisor a waste of time? Crazy.

Tripadvisor does have its uses. It’s particularly helpful when looking for an activity in a city you don’t know, or giving you a basic guide of attractions. It’s great at finding a hotel in your price range, in your chosen area, suitable for you (love those categories of reviewers) that is not home to bedbugs and degenerates.

But It’s absolutely useless at pointing people in the direction of a fabulous restaurant, giving them an apt description of it, providing a price range* and ensuring they get the most out of the city from a small number of meals out. It’s even more inadequate if you are a resident of the city and are looking for some inspiration. I’m sure this goes for many cities, but I’m going to use Dubai as an example, because it’s a city dining scene I personally have pretty well researched (as you can tell by my girth).

So here’s why it can’t work:

One-Hit-Wonders. Many of the reviews that hit Tripadvisor come from travellers rather than residents. When they decide to come to Dubai, they wanted to see the dancing fountains, and have a drinkie at the Burj Al Arab. They didn’t really care about researching a great eatery in the back blocks of Old Dubai. They  wanted to blow some big bucks on a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and so, when they review the restaurant they likely rate the atmosphere and view at a greater importance than food quality, value or service. With a miscalculation on the exchange rate, stars in their eyes, and the absence of  any other restaurant in the area to compare it to, they rate their one city restaurant visit high. Locals go later, and realise it’s overpriced, the food is not authentic, and the experience is tacky beyond belief. But they can’t be bothered writing a review…

Contributors. Yes, yes, I know. They are normal people, and you are normal people. You should share their opinion, right? But do you like your lovely neighbour’s bright orange V8 Chevvy with it’s Mexican Hat Dance horn tune as much as your sensible beige Volvo station wagon? Do you like to go on the same holidays as your parents do? There are stacks of ‘normal’ people in the world, but the only normal thing they share is the distinct ability to have completely different tastes. Relying on the masses to give you a pinpointed, accurate and informed decision is probably normal, but unfortunately, quite stupid. Just look at who wins Australian Idol…

Skewed ratings. I’m an easy marker, but I never, ever give a 5/5 – I’m still on the search for that perfect restaurant. I know a lady who would give a restaurant a 5/5 for a smile from a gorgeous waiter. I know another who rates everything 3/5, regardless. She’s hard to please, but also difficult to disappoint, and doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I know a bipolar pain in the proverbial who will give something 1/5 one day, and 4/5 the next. The scoreboard is a tool of whimsy for him, and he really doesn’t give a whatsit about it to be honest – he’s just verbose enough to want to make himself heard. How on earth can a rating system that takes all these marks at equal weight, possibly be accurate?

Comment and rating diddling. Tripadvisor try to keep an eye on this, but it’s impossible to police effectively. If I had a restaurant, there is a 90% possibility that I would set up 400 different Tripadvisor profiles to pimp my establishment and slam my competitors. There’s a 9% chance I couldn’t be bothered, and another 1% chance that my faith in the populace becoming more intelligent and making more informed decisions would hold my fingers back. But then I’m quite an honest soul, and can’t speak for everyone…

Timing. Tripadvisor is updated constantly. However the figures that contribute to the numbers that create their top positions stretch way back into the deep past. This means that a restaurant may have received very good ratings in 2012, but then had a change of management and is has become a den of mediocrity in the last few months (the top restaurant at present has 90% of it’s average to terrible ratings occurring in the last 6 months). Not only that, someone may rate a restaurant today on a meal they had there a year ago. This happens all the time, due to Tripadvisor’s encouraging popups asking contibutors to divulge information on other dining experiences in the area they have just written about, tempting them with golden contributor badges and the like. Then there’s the opposite affect – a restaurant that has only been open for 6 weeks, still in the honeymoon period and hasn’t had the opportunity to offend anyone too greatly can end up in the top 10, just because nobody has given them lower than 4/5.

Popularity snowballing. Just imagine there is a little place that gets a couple of 5/5 votes on Tripadvisor in one week. If they don’t have any bad ratings, then that’s enough to get them in the top thirty. The owner notices, and then pleads to their 10 regular customers to write something nice about them on Tripadvisor. Another 10 comments and they are in the top 10. Then you, and every other man and his dog are on Tripadvisor and you see this little place and think “Wow! I have to get in there”, and so you go in, love it, and write pretty things about them on Tripadvisor too. It’s not a bad establishment, and deserves some recognition, but the little guy next door is making food just a tiny bit better, but forgot to tell his customers to write on Tripadvisor. He is still hovering in the back end of the top 1000 with two 4.5 /5 votes in the last 6 months. And there’s a whole heap of chaff above him that you would have to weed through to find him.

S & M belles. There are some places that achieve higher ratings purely because the person at the helm actually understands social media. It’s likely that the reviews are honest, but possibly a little prolific – perhaps spurred on by gimmicks (discount next time you book if you post a review), or even just a heartfelt plea (Please write about your experience, nobody knows who we are and I have 6 children to feed). These are the little places that get massive attention in a slightly unnatural way. Being a lover of SM, I can’t hate them for it, but it will hide equally good venues behind their excessive plumage of praise. Its just another way the playing field is left uneven, because Social Media really doesn’t impact on your dining experience – which is exactly what we are rating.

Extremes only. People are rarely inclined to wax lyrical about the average. This means you get all the winners, wowers, the whiners, and the poor old sods who just ended up unlucky on the night. Yes, very good restaurants occasionally have a whole heap of really bad luck occur in one night on one table. And that will be the customer who will write a 1000 word essay on Tripadvisor. And that 1/5 when everyone else has given them 5/5 and 4/5 might be enough to send them from top 10 to something sub-50. At the other end of the spectrum, you have restaurants who occasionally hit the red button with an almighty successful bang, but usually churn out a whole pot of unoffensive but uninspiring mediocre (there are two in the top-ten at present), but the diners subject to the ordinary experience never even consider writing a review. There’s just nothing to say.

People are picky on the big guns. Why isn’t Zuma in the top ten? Because everyone who has been smart enough to make a booking goes in with their eyes peeled for fault. It’s called ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’, and it’s human nature to want to cut down those who rise above the rest. I suppose that’s why the Cheesecake factory (ugh) sits one position above them. Ironically, The Cheesecake Factory is probably an even taller poppy in the grand scheme of things. More ironic still, this post attempts to trim its own tall poppy (Tripadvisor).

Categories shmategories. Who needs them? I mean, for sure, we should put Reflets by Pierre Gagnaire (Michelin starred celebrity chef fine dining) on the same rating scale as Sim Sim (cheap and cheerful, modern, unlicensed Lebanese eatery). Because when I am looking at a ratings guide, and comparing venues side by side, those are exactly the two kinds of restaurants I am deciding between. NOT.

Irrational bullshit. Sorry to swear, but honestly, there is some twaddle in there, and unfortunately it all counts towards the rating. There’s a 1/5 rating written by someone who didn’t even dine because they couldn’t get a reservation at the restaurant at the time they wanted. Another rates an establishment as 1/5 and ‘Consistently Terrible’ (why would you return ‘consistently’ to a restaurant you thought was terrible?), and another rates an Izakaya-style restaurant at 1/5 because their sharing plates are designed for two people, not three. Sometimes I’m embarrassed being human.

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So where should you look to instead?

Find and follow an excellent blogger. In Dubai, that would be me. Don’t just follow the blog, but stalk me on twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Then you’ll also see all the other places I visit that for some reason or another are not quite blogworthy. If you don’t like me, then I’m not really sure why you’ve managed to get this far down the page, but my favourite non-me restaurant blogger is Foodiva, who dines out 75 times a week and seems to have celebrity chefs on speed dial.

Study the Dubai Gourmet Trail Guide. It’s been put together by me and 5 other Dubai food maniacs. They are not guaranteed to be perfect, but they are our top 100, and each one is there for a very good reason. There’s places ranging from fine dining to street-muck (in categories of course), so it should have you covered.

Have a look around local social restaurant sites. RoundMenu has a Q&A section, and has just released a side-site with tips (and I provide some of them). Zomato have a social platform similar to Tripadvisor, but at least it’s local, and reviews that hit the top are the ones written by constant contributors.

It you insist on using Tripadvisor (Which is actually a very useful website for other reasons), make sure you read the individual reviews, and look at the figures carefully. Not everything that glitters is gold (except in Dubai), so you’ll need to study it well see through the gauze.

And next week, I’m going to give you a current top ten I think, just to make it even simpler….

stumble me…


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PS.

If you want to have a laugh, follow #shitadvisor on twitter, where chefs and restaurant owners have a rant about irrational Tripadvisor posts.

* Regarding the Restaurant Price ratings: Tripadvisor have the price ranges marked, but a talking dog must have provided them, because they have Table 9 in the super-budget range, and The Courtyard at Al Manzil in the blow the budget category, amongst many other blunders that could send some people very askew.

 

25 Comments

  1. Brave article! Haven’t really used Trip Advisor for Dubai restaurants but its true that I do read Trip Advisor when I am visiting new cities. For Dubai, its Foodiva and needless to say – you! Lately, I have been following Zagat, Zomato and Round Menu too just to understand the differences in the way food bloggers and a regular diner review a place.

    • ohh yes, I do need to have another look at Zagat. I had a browse earlier in the piece, but it was still a little sparse. I’m sure that’s changed now

  2. You are spot on, Sarah! I do use Trip Advisor for finding hotels and the like but, even for those, I always take the most adulatory and the most miserly reviews with a peck of salt. As you say, the average experience doesn’t motivate people to add a comment. For restaurants, I always want a local’s advice, be she blogger and/or online reviewer. The most reliable reviews tell me the bad, the good and the sublime. If Trip Advisor has a problem with your well-thought out review of their product, as it relates to restaurant ratings reliability, I would say, if you can can’t take it, don’t dish it out!

  3. Completely agree, but I would go one step further and add hotel ratings to this dodgy mix. Many leading hotel chains manipulate their ranking by asking staff, family and friends to post comments. I speak from past experience ;) For this reason, I personally have never and will never use Tripadvisor full stop. Why should I when as you said there are so many impartial bloggers and social media channels out there…I would be interested to see if and how Tripadvisor responds to your post. In the meantime, fancy dinner with a celeb chef? ;)

  4. The categories point is at the crux. With a hotel you can see which star ranking it is – so if you are looking for super luxury and a 2 star hotel is ranked higher you know to look further down the list. Not so with restaurants – so looking at my home town of Cheltenham, last summer, a mobile van selling coffee was no 1 (I see it has now slipped to no 24) and fine dining is lumped in with pubs, cafes and tea rooms.
    The timeliness of the review is an interesting point I hadn’t thought of – as you say TA urges you to write retrospective reviews. The memory fades and places change. I would use TA for researching hotels but never for restaurants. Word of mouth or trusted bloggers work for me.

    • I’m with you sister. I just looked up TA’s restaurants with ‘scenic view’ option and they didn’t have Pier Chic, Thiptara or At.Mosphere in there. Useless categories for restaurants, even when they do provide them.

  5. I’ve used TA earlier this year when I traveled to India. A massive help in locating hotels with decent deals and services but it did not impress with restaurants / food suggestions. I stuck with speaking to the locals or sending out tweets to help with dine-in recommendations when travelling. I doubt I’ve ever read TA when it comes to locating or discovering eateries in Dubai, I keep it old school with worth-to mouth suggestions, especially for old Dubai and stay in tune with most of the lovely food blogs on FA. Great read. :)

    • absolutely Jasmine, good point – always speak to a local. I’m know for asking taxi drivers where to get the best feed (In Petra, one even took our family back to his Mama’s place for lunch!)

  6. Tarik Kaddoumi says:

    Some things have been left out here, and I will have to disagree with you.

    An important part of any reviewing system is to remember the target audience. So I love food, and love reading about it, experimenting, cooking, and visiting restaurants, yet I would never expect a website called “Trip” – and – “Advisor” to share the same love or expertise in food that I look for. The target audience is travelers, and not everyone coming to Dubai can comment when they are faced with a disgusting Foie Gras or an interestingly contemporary bucket of animal-feed pellets. So What I’m saying is that, in this article, you are sitting at Ravi’s, and commenting on their Sommelier’s experience.

    On the other hand, “food bloggers” are never really the best resource for advice on the matter, nor do most of them have the experience in the culinary/food industry, cooking, wine pairing, etc… And it almost always feels like it is a bored person, usually accompanied by a mac and funded by a loving husband, who are giving great reviews to the restaurants that fulfill their mission of scoring a free meal.

    I’m not saying that you are like that. But I really find it biased and amateurish, when a food blogger calls a restaurant prior to visiting and saying they are a food blogger. In the quest for the perfect 5/5 restaurant, they should never know, and this guarantees the results that readers, or “normal people” expect.

    Your argument on timing does not apply either, as the top restaurant in Dubai is Qbara which opened 6 months ago. Their algorithm is based on ranking, date and score all added together as a median.

    I use tripadvisor as a great supplier of lists. Yes they could be better, but they are not our beloved car tyres guide to good places to swerve to for a meal, and they shouldn’t be treated as thought they are.

    • Hi Tarik,
      Just so you know, I am a sommelier (I studied wine at Uni for 4 years), and used to wait tables and manage restaurants. Yes, I am funded by my poor husband, but fortunately he loves great food and wine as much as I do. I also very rarely write about complimentary experiences, unless they have some particular reason to be written about (e.g. my Rang Mahal post), and I would not rate a restaurant on a comp feed, UNLESS it is provided by way of a voucher and I can book and dine anonymously until I present it at the end of the meal (this has only happened once recently). I turn down several opportunities for a free feed every day, because I simply can’t blog about them.
      So now that’s covered.
      I agree with you, Tripadvisor is not for food-maniacs. Yes, it is a platform for the average traveller, or at least the average traveller who bothers to take the time to check up on restaurants before they dine (showing they are at least a little interested in a quality feed.) My great issue is that the top restaurants they provide are simply a hideously bad representation of Dubai’s culinary talent. Yes, Qbara is fabulous, and is probably the only one that deserves to be there (I see that today it has skipped up from 2 to 1, so that is great news). Marta’s Kitchen (number 3) is also fabulous, but is definitely a ‘foodie’ haunt, as it is tiny, unlicensed, only serves 30 weekday lunches, and is at the back of an office block in an area not particularly touristic, but very suited to residents and workers. The fact it is there is a combination of Marta’s SM skills and a little of that popularity snowballing that I was talking about. All the others in the list are just a little too ‘meh’ IMHO, and many others. Is it fair of Tripadvisor to provide a platform that gives us 8 just-ok places in a ‘top 10′? And to allow some of the greatest restaurants in the city to be hidden behind them? (Zuma is number 77 and La Petite Maison 81 in San Pellegrino’s esteemed best restaurants of the world list, but they only rate 87 and 84 respectively on Tripadvisor’s list for Dubai only) People will leave my amazing city thinking that these average places are the best that Dubai has to offer. And that breaks my heart just a little bit.

  7. You’re totally right. I think the point is to always use multiple sources (TripAdvisor and Yelp etc… are just one type of info) and read the reviews.

    But do you ever write reviews yourself though?

    I just started because I felt like “giving back” to the good places and because I know so many people do rely on sites like these.

    What are your thoughts?

    • Hi Suzie,
      Thanks for commenting, and good point. I do write the occasional Tripadvisor review. I found however that I had more to say and it wasn’t being found in that great lake of content, and that is why I focus more on my blog now. Interestingly, I tend to only write up the ordinary experiences on Tripadvisor, as they have no home on my own platform (yes, going against what I said most people do!).
      I agree, and think that the restaurant section on Tripadvisor can be dissected well with time, by reading individual reviews, but does anyone ever really do that? Especially past restaurant number 50? And I can assure you, some of Dubai’s best are well and truly under that on their list.
      I’ll make a deal with you – if Tripadvisor improve the platform, I PROMISE to give back like you do :)

      • Thanks for your response Sarah. You’ve made me realise that if people genuinely go to number 1 and work down the list my review on number 300+ is useless although I guess if it’s really good it might raise the rank of the restaurant. Either way I think I’ll go with your tactic for now. Thanks!

  8. One point to add that cropped up when I interviewed Wolfgang Puck yesterday (not quite on speed dial though) is both Michelin and the World’s 50 Best ratings. I refer to both when I am travelling as a good benchmark for top-end dining experiences. Wolfgang whose two LA restaurants (Spago and Cut) had Michelin stars before Michelin stopped rating LA (they couldn’t sell the book) firmly believes that it’s very much targeted at tourists. To quote him “To me one critic might love it or not, another won’t but at the end of the day our guest is the critic. Now with modern technology you can tell hundred people in a second whether you had a good or bad meal. So now people listen much more to bloggers and social media commentators. Guides have become less important.” Wise words perhaps.

  9. Mhmm… I see what you did there. Here’s the thing with TripAdvisor: Love it or hate it, as a restaurateur or hotelier chances are you’ve got to deal with it. TA’s bulk business are hotel reviews, but they are really pushing into the restaurant space, too, perhaps to ward of competition from the likes of Yelp or Yadig. Guess what, though? It doesn’t really matter, because the future of restaurant reviews is social and local.
    It’s a numbers’ game. TA says they have approx. 50 million registered users, but this number pales compared to the daily users of Facebook and Google – both platforms that are now heavily pushing reviews. Mobile Internet access is on the rise and users searching for restaurants or bars from their mobile devices will soon be shown the nearest local listings in order of popularity on Facebook or Google. That doesn’t fix the underlying issue perhaps, but it’ll decrease TA’s importance.
    On the other hand: TA allows management replies and offers complaint mechanisms, but Facebook doesn’t. Where would you rather be reviewed as a business? More info on the same topic here: http://www.hoteliermiddleeast.com/18962-comment-facebook-and-google-business-star-ratings/

  10. Stew-or-Ragout says:

    Interesting discussion which I just stumbled on whilst researching something else and I have to say I concur completely with Tarik.

    It’s fashionable to dismiss Trip Advisor.

    However, as a regular contributor and someone who travels frequently & extensively and always use the site as one of our research tools, I have never been let down. Our travel is always for leisure, and food always plays an important part of the trip. We plan our trips on where we want to eat.

    I think the key is to use it as an ancillary to other planning methods. Like suzie, I “give back” to the site when I have time to write reviews. I don’t always write reviews, and don’t concentrate on either the positive or negative experiences. Just write them up when I have time. and pride myself on always being fair and unbiased. I have around 160 reviews at the moment (mostly restaurants and hotels) and the most current update of “review readers” was over 100K of the reviews, with 497 helpful votes. (TA send monthly dashboard of activity). One review in particular has received around 10K readers alone. People message me from over the world regarding my reviews looking for further information/clarifications. I don’t write reviews of the local McDonalds, Pizza Hut and the likes (believe me, some do!) and the majority are of fine dining/acclaimed and hidden gems that we have stumbled on as we eat our way around the world.

    I don’t blog, and quite frankly, there are very few I would follow. There are far too many out there that believe their own hype and sometimes I think I have as much to offer than some. However, I value my anomymity too much and not prepared to “put myself out there”. Actual fact, there is a blogger I often have a look at who practically plagiarises sentences from pieces I write, and just seems to follow and echo what other (better) bloggers write. Funny thing is, this person has tons of Twitter followers who hang on every word.

    I find it extremely irritating to sit in a restaurant whilst a diner at the next table photographs their dish from every angle to post on Instagram/Twitter or save for their blog. For me, it’s all about the food and I’m not going to hang around taking photos whilst the dish gets cold! It appears everyone thinks they are/can be a food critic thesedays.

    I would sincerely hope that Hedonista’s comment “… find and follow an excellent blogger…in Dubai that would be me” is pure tongue in cheek or else it confirms my sentiments about a lot of bloggers out there! Maybe you are, but I just don’t have time at the moment to have a read and see (will do later!)

    The key to Trip Advisor is not to use it as the only source of research. Sort the chaff from the wheat with the reviews (it can take some time!) Dismiss the one-post wonders and look for the ones that are fair, unbiased and give a bit more than a couple of lines. Have a look at the previous posting history of the reviewer (harder these days with the new format) and see if their posting style/travel style suits your own. Ask them questions (there is the facility to do so), and engage with them if they are open to do so – or use the forums. That way the locals and Destination Experts (I hate that term too, what makes an “expert”?). That way, you might be lucky to hear of their “secret gems”. It happens to me frequently, and I have found some wonderful places and have made friends with like minded food loving travellers all over the world.

    This must be the new phase of Trip Advisor bashing.

    Hotel/Restaurant proprietors have always slated TA reviews. However, we all know they read them. Interestingly too, they are always more than happy to promote their “Certificate of Excellence” if they receive them.

    There’s no perfect way. Trip Advisor reviews can be fabricated. Blogger reviews can be fabricated too.

    • Hi there – yes, your last point, absolutely. Blogger reviews can be fabricated too, and that’s why I think you need to follow one you can trust. I’ve got my go-tos for London, Athens, Barcelona, Provence, Melbourne and I’m expanding the list. I do read A LOT of blogs though, far more than the normal person. And yes, telling everyone to follow me was tongue in cheek. I only ever get my tongue out of my cheek to put my food or my foot in my mouth. That’s why I gave you a real restaurant blogger to follow in this city ;)
      My issue with Tripadvisor is that they give us a rating guide with a number, and the numbers are unfortunately very skewiff (see my response to Tarik also). This simple format appears particularly user-friendly, and so people look at it and take it as gospel. Sure, you can look through the individual reviews, contact individual reviewers, but nobody (OK – 5% of the population might) actually does that. They just look at the numbers. At least with the hotel ratings, you can go into specific categories (I always look to see what the families with young children have to say about a place). But the restaurant guide offers no such help to refine, so finding a starting point with a particular helpful reviewer is subtly, and perhaps unconsciously, discouraged. It might help if the pricing guides or dining options were actually correct.
      I think Tripadvisor, due to it’s sheer volume of traffic, owes it to it’s readers to be a valuable and correct guide, and they are not. I quoted Spider Man’s Dad on Twitter yesterday and will do so again: “With great power comes great responsibility”. Tripadvisor can send a city’s tourism in a particular direction, and can make or break a restaurant by what they allow to appear on their site. They must be accountable.
      Regarding it being fashionable to diss Tripadvisor, I’m sure it’s more fashionable to applaud it, because their stats yesterday were probably about a million times what mine were. I did get sent an article that appeared in the Telegraph yesterday bagging their restaurant reviews too though, so maybe you’re onto something. Send me viral and I’ll eat my hat (I hear it goes well with foot).

  11. Very interesting article! I do completely agree with your points, but it can be really hard to find good, reliable information on some places. For a lot of big cities in the world there are a lot of blogs that you can follow, but what about smaller towns?
    I love food blogs and follow a lot of them, even though i often do not agree with them – but from the way they review things I’ll know if the restaurant is for me or not.

    Tripadvisor for me is great for hotels, but like you said, for restaurants in your home town it can be a disaster. In the town where i live, the number 1 position is a tea/coffee shop…. The place itself is lovely, but a Michelin starred restaurant for instance is not even in the top 20. You’ll have to carefully read individual reviews, which can take a lot of time.

    You have probably read this article as well but if not, it’s very interesting: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/features/meet-tripadvisors-most-prolific-critic-phil-blackett–aka-the-food-dood–has-reviewed-almost-1000-restaurants-in-152-cities-9268065.html

    • sarahhedonista says:

      Wow – I hadn’t read that. Amazing, thanks for the link. Will look into his reviews. Interesting to see someone would put in all that effort if it’s not for his own site.

  12. Just to add, as I forgot it in my previous comment: The fact that the price ranges, features (view/atmosphere), and similar info on TripAdvisor for restaurants in Dubai appears a bit strange at times is mostly the fault of the restaurant owners, because these settings can be adjusted in the TA backoffice.

  13. I do write TA reviews but am very conscious that I tend to do so only for experiences at the extremes of good and bad – life is too short to review every meal or stay. So naturally the figures are skewed. My rule of thumb is to read other reviews by the reviewer to get a wider sense of their likes/dislikes, but then that should be a general rule when reacting to print reviewers or bloggers too.

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