A discerning guide to interpreting online reviews of restaurants & other things…

The tables at Gaylord's in Kauai are arranged around the inner courtyard of the plantation house under the porch awning. As the sun sets, the soft light of the torches begins to glow.

Call it social media, web 2.0, the inmates taking over asylum or whatever other terms (laudatory or derogatory: take your pick), but call it here to stay.   And less than a decade has passed since everything has changed for us discerning travelers when it comes to making travel decisions.  When we first started globe-trotting, we relied on two important sources of information: travel brochures and a trusty travel agent.  These days, although both of these are important (brochures that have morphed into glossy magazines because it feels so darn nice just to turn the pages in an evening with a glass of wine, and our travel agent, Angela because we rely on her for getting us into and out of complicated trips), there is such an array of other information that it boggles the mind.  So, why don’t we just ignore all those new sources of information?  Well, that would be just dumb.

But the question still remains: how do you wade through all of the information?  Our main concern is how to interpret the user-generated reviews; in other words, how do you discern the truth from reviews posted by fellow travelers?  Not easily as it turns out.  Here is our story.

Patty actually teaches social media to graduate students in communication studies at a local university.  So, in our case, we do need to keep up with what’s happening.  Over the past year or so, we’ve become regular reviewers on TripAdvisor, one of the largest (perhaps the largest at this stage) traveler-based review site for hotels, restaurants and travel experiences.  That usually means that we also use reviews posted by others to get a sense of location, hotels and restaurants.  The trouble is, after we’ve been to some of them and we go back to post our own reviews, we often see discrepancies that are not so much a function of differing points of view, rather they seem to be based on some reviewers not actually reviewing the right property at all!  Here is our case in point.

The entertainment at Gaylord's.

In February we headed out to Hawaii in search of some warmth and relaxation in Kauai and the big island.  While we were in Lihue on Kauai, we chatted up the concierge at the hotel to find dining options and decided to take a taxi to Gaylord’s.  Located on the ground floor of a wonderful period plantation house on the outskirts of Lihue, this restaurant is a real step back in time.  With top-notch service, wonderful food and evening entertainment in the open-air restaurant, the evening was memorable.  And so on our return home we decided to post a review of the spot on TripAdvisor.  As we usually do, we browsed other reviews before writing ours so as to add something that might have been overlooked by others.  Much to our surprise, we noted several reviews that said things like this:  “The show is stunning with beautiful music and stunning fire twirling. Food was buffet cafeteria style and not A+ quality…”  Huh?  Where were they?  They certainly didn’t dine at Gaylord’s.  However, they were on the property.

Be sure to visit the rest of the plantation house after dinner -- here is the great room.

At the Kilohana Plantation which is where Gaylord’s is located, there are luaus twice a week on the back lot.  In fact, the evening we were there was a luau going on, but other than the cars parked out front, the crowd at the buffet-style luau didn’t interfere in any way with our own experience.  However, this person who wrote the review (and this one was not the only one) certainly didn’t eat at Gaylord’s.  This suggested to us that there might be many other mistakes like this one.  Obviously, our review attempted to clear this up.  But it begs the question of how to interpret what you read.

Here are some of the things we’ve learned about interpreting travel advice on the web.

  • Know what kind of site you’re on.  There are many different kinds of travel sites.  Among them are review sites from travel guide companies (www.frommers.com; www.fodors.com) where the reviews are written by professional reviewers ; there are travel review sites where the reviews are written by travelers (www.tripadvisor.com, www.virtualtourist.com);  there are travel  sales companies (www.maritimetravel.com),  there are traveler blogs that are monetized (read: supported by specific commercial interests), and there are personal travel blogs like this one that are stories from travelers like you who simply want to share experiences).  Each of these kinds of sites has a different agenda and each has something different to offer you.  Remember, though, that each of them has a frame through which they see the travel industry as a whole, and specific experiences in particular.  And each one wants something different from you.  Armed with this information, you’re ready to move on into the sites you choose.
  • Get a feel for the kinds of reviews posted on the site.  Before you hone in on the specific places you’re looking for, read as many reviews as you have time for.  Look at how many there are for any given place and how often each is reviewed.  There would be no point in you reading a review from us of a cruise we took on the Seven Seas Navigator three years ago because she has been completely refitted since then.
  • Examine who is doing the reviewing.  This is particularly important in user-generated reviews.  If you see a review that you think is useful to you, read the reviewer’s profile to find out if the reviewer might be looking for something different than you are.  If you read our profile on TripAdvisor, for example, you can see that we are not interested in family-oriented places and seek the best of everything.  If you’re searching for budget accommodation, our reviews will not be helpful to you.  On the other hand, if you are an astute, discerning traveler, you just might find what you’re looking for.  It’s also important to be aware that there have been some scandals involving property owners or someone working for them posting glowing reviews.  Early this year the British Advertising Standards Authority censured TripAdvisor for suggesting that all reviews on the site are unbiased.  (Read the story here.)This is a hazard of social media.
  • Beware of the one-sentence review.  Anyone can slap up a sentence or two without really thinking about what made the experience good or bad.  If someone says that a place was wonderful or terrible without details – telling you rather than showing you – move on to another review.  These are not helpful.  At least if someone relates their actual experience to you, you can judge for yourself.  Some travelers consider places over-priced when what you really might be looking for is value for your money and be willing to pay more to get more.  A review that simply says the food was over-priced without any details is useless.

So, now we need to get ourselves to a review site to search for wonderful restaurants that we haven’t already experienced in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Ten days and counting!

4 thoughts on “A discerning guide to interpreting online reviews of restaurants & other things…

    1. Thanks, Ted. And it’s ony the tip of the iceberg in trying to sort out the really useful information from the promotional and the truly obnoxious!

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