What the TripAdvisor 'Best of the Best' list reveals about the limitations of aggregate review sites

I come not to bury TripAdvisor, but to note that you should take their reviews with a dose of salt

What the TripAdvisor 'Best of the Best' list reveals about the limitations of aggregate review sitesWhat the TripAdvisor 'Best of the Best' list reveals about the limitations of aggregate review sites
What the TripAdvisor 'Best of the Best' list reveals about the limitations of aggregate review sites

It's gorgeous, looking at hotel reviews. A means of forecasting to a possible future, idle day-dreaming. So I understand completely indulging in a thorough peruse of TripAdvisor's Best of the Best hotel list. But I would be careful about giving it too much credence.

For a start, the UK list is somewhat myopic in scope. Seven of the top ten hotels are located in London, with the top five all based in the capital - and most of them sub-categorised as luxury stays. The number one spot runs for - at time of publishing - £910 a night. 

This of course makes sense - London is both the largest city in the United Kingdom, and the one visited by the most tourists. It makes sense that it’s over-represented on a list of the 25 best UK hotels. And a luxury hotel is in the top spot because these places tend to make for more memorable, over-whelming holidays than somewhere mid tier.

But these facts do demonstrate the limitations of an awards list culled from aggregate reviews. Rather than finding and championing the new, the off-piste, it reinforces received wisdom. It sends people to the same places and in search of the same experiences. In search of quality control, it dulls the edges of the world.

You could argue it's a meritocratic means of analysing reviews, to ask independent people to post a review of where they have stayed. But our criteria and rationale for liking something is so idiosyncratic. When you are reading TripAdvisor reviews, you can not be certain of the motivation behind the review.

Many may be made in good faith, but sometimes there may be malign intent behind the review, not revealed in the content. At my most recent hotel stay, I overheard a man complaining to the concierge that he was dissatisfied by the place because the skin of the opera singers providing entertainment in the courtyard was too dark, and he couldn't see them at night. (No, alas, I am not making this up). I cite this simply to illustrate that the myriad people of the internet offering a review are not necessarily people with the same priorities as you, or motivations for offering advice.

Readers may come from a different background, have a different set of expectations, and - not to be too self-congratulatory - may not be very good at communicating why and what they feel about a place.

TripAdvisor released their second public Transparency Report in 2023. In it, they divulged that 4.37% of the site reviews "were determined to be fraudulent, totalling 1.3 million reviews". These were then taken down, or not published if caught ahead of publication time. They profess a level of rigour in their efforts:

"Tripadvisor’s fraud detection technology and expert investigative teams incorporate proactive techniques from the banking and credit card industry to map hundreds of discrete pieces of information, designed to detect the review’s origin and context or to spot a potential connection to other reviews or reviewer accounts. This includes establishing patterns of suspicious behaviour from paid review operations as well."

It's notable that TripAdvisor continue to use the same model for people to submit reviews as they did before they started publishing transparency reports.

If we take TripAdvisor's efforts in good faith, there are still undetected locations paying third parties to write glowing reviews, or indeed, asking friends and families to bump up their rating with positive coverage. Conversely, it would be easy for competitors to post negative reviews to try and denigrate a hotel's over-all rating.

As a means of discerning how good a hotel is, then, I view TripAdvisor as a blunt instrument. You can look at it to spot patterns - multiple complaints about noise, say, or many mentions of something specific, like "great swim-up bar". But I wouldn't use it as the only site to evaluate where to stay. Cross-reference, cross-reference, cross-reference. Be sceptical of raves and wary of one-star reviews slating a place. Good luck. I hope you find a great place to stay.