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.
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…
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.