The pandemic has been a rollercoaster for travel. Over the past two years, we’ve seen the world go from sheltering at home to traveling with abandon to everything in between, thanks to border closures, travel restrictions, fears of Covid and more. So it makes sense that looking at online reviews has become so important to travelers as they navigate the ever-changing landscape and figure out where to go, what to see and where to stay. But according to a new report, travelers have become dangerously obsessed with reading online reviews—and this might have a surprisingly negative effect on the travel experience.
The luxury homestay company Plum Guide recently surveyed 4,000 global travelers and found that more than half of Americans will only book a vacation once they have scoured online reviews. But here’s the staggering figure: Most Americans say they need to read an average of 17 reviews to feel comfortable before booking anything, with nearly one in 10 needing to look at a whopping 40 reviews.
Moreover, 67% of Americans describe themselves as “obsessed” with reading reviews, with almost half stating they would feel “emotionally distressed” if they were to book a major trip without reading any reviews first. Plus, one in three Americans believe they would suffer from sleepless nights if they couldn’t access online reviews.
Does all this online research pay off? The Plum Guide research says no. According to the report, 46% of Americans say they have been seriously let down because of online reviews. And three in four respondents say they have experienced emotional upset or stress on a vacation because of the misplaced trust they placed on online reviews.
“The impulse to drown ourselves in countless reviews in a bid to make us feel content is now—thanks to the explosion of choice online—an impossible and laborious task,” says Plum Guide founder and CEO Doron Meyassed. “Because there is so much choice out there, we seek out reviews to give us a helping hand, but instead they just cause us stress, anxiety and—in the end—can cost us money and time.”
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Cognitive scientist Philip Fernbach is the author of the book, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. Fernbach collaborated on the Plum Guide research and agrees that over-reliance on reviews should be addressed. “They can be rife with irrelevance, inauthenticity and idiosyncrasy. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look at them, but rather be aware that the information you get is not gospel,” he says. “The average star rating is heavily biased, fake reviews are common and for experiences like [trips], different consumers can have radically different tastes.”
To illustrate the point, Plum Guide created a new “Do Not Trust Reviews” campaign, projecting real-life comments from one-star reviews onto iconic buildings in New York and London. The clever campaign shows that even top landmarks aren’t safe from scathing reviews. Consider this commentary on the Brooklyn Bridge: “Underwhelming. It’s just a bridge.” Or the High Line: “Highly overrated.” Over in London, a clearly displeased Emma B had a crushing review of the Tower of London, one of the metropolis’s most visited attractions. Her hilarious commentary: “No heads on spikes” with a 0 rating out of 10.
“We thought it’d be interesting to project some [reviews] onto a few of the most critically acclaimed and iconic locations in New York and London to start a conversation which challenges our obsession with reviews,” says Meyassed, whose company uses trained critics to carry out a rigorous vetting process on its high-end properties before they are featured on the platform.
So should people avoid online reviews altogether? “I don’t think people should avoid reviews altogether, but they should appreciate that they are imperfect, and no amount of review reading ensures a great vacation,” says Fernbach.
It’s also important to consider the source, as many online reviews are fake, says Fernbach. Is it possible to ferret out a fake review from an authentic one? Not easily, says Fernbach, but he shares a few clues to look out for:
• Use an online tool: Several online tools, such as Fakespot, have sprung up in recent years that use machine-learning techniques to classify reviews as authentic versus fake. “These tools do seem to have some diagnostic value,” says Fernbach.
• See if the review is attached to a verified purchase. “You can put more trust in reviews based on verified purchases,” says Fernbach.
• Look closely at the language in the review: Finally, it’s important to keep an eye out for personal pronouns like I, we, they, you, she and he. “Some academic literature has looked at the characteristics of reviews that are more likely to be authentic,” says Fernbach. “These include more concrete language, less generic contact and, perhaps surprisingly, fewer personal pronouns.”