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How Do You Read User Reviews?

If you're going someplace where you don't live and know few people, you'll have to rely on the opinion of strangers. Simple enough -- but which strangers?

This is something I've been mulling over since getting back from last week's vacation. More so than on any earlier trip, I relied on the Web instead of guidebooks for advice on where to stay and eat. And not just when planning our trek to Portland, Ore., and its beach/mountain surroundings, but during it. Between my own smartphone and the review iPhone (not due back to Apple's PR department for another week), I could look up advice on the go -- subject, of course, to the limits of Sprint and AT&T's networks.

But as anybody who's lost too many hours to reading over conflicting hotel reviews on TripAdvisor can attest, more information can get in the way of making a decision. Everybody seems to like that cute little bed-and-breakfast in the countryside, but what about the minority of negative reviews that raise specific complaints?

The problem escalates when you're trying to pick a restaurant. Food can be an extremely subjective issue, and you have to factor in how money affects people's perceptions of value -- do people unconsciously think they got a better meal because they spent over $20 an entree, or do they go too easy on a place because nothing's over $12? And what about people who order an item that's not exactly in the kitchen's core competency -- say, the fellow who orders chicken at a seafood shack?

At one point, we had to decide on dinner in a small town up the Columbia River. The iPhone's clever little Urbanspoon application didn't even cover this place, and Yelp only offered reviews of a minority of its restaurants -- most reflecting the views of 5 or fewer people. Eventually, I decided that we'd be better off walking up the main drag, seeing which places were open and had menus to check out.

(That approach had the added advantage of not feeling like work.)

That's an extreme case, but even when you can read ratings based on the input of dozens or hundreds of semi-anonymous people, you still need to read them with a certain amount of skepticism. But how much? Myself, I usually throw out the worst and best ratings, and I also tend to ignore those written in all caps and with a surplus of exclamation points. Longer, more specific reviews get more credence than short, vague writeups. People who can cite repeat experiences with a place earn more credibility than one-time visitors.

How about you? What sort of filter do you use to assess the evaluations of strangers -- on TripAdvisor, Yelp, Amazon or the Post's own CityGuide -- when you need to decide where to spend your money?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  September 8, 2008; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Digital culture , The Web  
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Comments

Welcome back. Hubby and the boys are on the road to a vacation. I had to book hotel rooms for the guys based on how long they thought they could drive on any given day. Little advance warning for their itinerary..."I think we can drive another three hours" I did read a few reviews in my decisions. For example, Elk City OK was a potential spot to stop but the motel reviews I saw made me decide another town about 20 minutes away had better choices. Don't know how accurate the individual motel reviews were but I could see the majority were bad...that was enough of a trend for me to book in Clinton OK instead.

Posted by: Tina in Falls Church | September 8, 2008 12:45 PM | Report abuse

I've experienced this sort of issue myself, not just on Amazon.com or trip guides, but also on apartment review sites.

On review sites, my biggest worry is that, in my opinion, people who are angry tend to write in reviews more often than people who are satisfied with a product, service, or living space. If you made a list of apartments to consider based on if the building got better than a 60% favorable rating from reviewers on Apartmentratings.com, I think most places in the metro D.C. area wouldn't qualify. That may knock out a lot of quality places that just got bad reviews from individuals angry over individual problems. People who are angry are motivated because of their anger and (hopefully) a desire to make sure others don't repeat their mistake. That can lead to a skewed review history on a product or service based on simply a few people with a bad experience. There's really no way to tell if they're the norm or the exception.

I tend to pay more attention to negative reviews only when the same issue is mentioned in multiple reviews over a period of time of at least a couple months. That tells me it's widespread and not being addressed, which is worrysome regardless if it's food at a restaurant or an apartment maintenance problem. I also agree with you Rob and I throw out reviews in all caps or with bad grammar and place greater emphasis on reviews that go into detail about a product or service.

Posted by: Chris | September 8, 2008 1:25 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Chris!! I have found the reviews for travel on Trip Advisor to be wonderful when you remember those guidelines mentioned as to which ones to ignore. (It isn't too hard to determine which ones are posting out of anger!) There is something to be said, however, about the recurring themes in reviews. I feel, too that when you have experienced a great resort, restaurant, hike, activity, trail....you really should take the time to post your comments as well when you return from a trip. Although this takes time, it is very worthwhile and helps the businesses to thrive.

Amazon, Sierra Trading Post, Trailspace.com,backpacking.net, thebackpacker.com, and Circuit City have some excellent feedback areas that I always read when purchasing anything -- from a book to a telephone, a cooking utensil to a pair of hiking boots. I really take stock in the comments about sizing, and appreciate when someone tells me that an item is sized generously or quite snug. I honestly can say that I do not make any purchase without seeking out reviews and comments. I find your blog to be very useful in sorting out electronic products, digital converters, cameras, and computer hardware.

Posted by: rj | September 8, 2008 1:50 PM | Report abuse

I think Tripadvisor is a cesspool of unhelpful feedback written by self important internet trolls with bruised egos.

That said, you have to wade through that muck to get an idea of what types of things are important to you and what's just loud b*tchin'...

Complaining that the restaurant wasn't open at midnight is pointless. Screaming about a loud wedding party is absurd. But if 10 people mention the free breakfast bar wasn't sufficiently stocked, that's reason to consider whether the breakfast bar is important to you or not.

Posted by: JkR | September 8, 2008 2:12 PM | Report abuse

For electronics, I tend to focus on "ease of use" comments. If I had a specific concern or feature, I would look for comments addressing that because most product descriptions are lousy. Build quality tolerance varies by person, so unless something is mentioned a lot, then I tend to ignore that.

Posted by: dgc | September 8, 2008 2:18 PM | Report abuse

If there are less than 10 reviews I'll typically read them all, if I need to filter I'll focus on the negative reviews first. I'm generally more interested in knowing what problems I'm likely to encounter should I decide on going with said option. As you and others have said poor grammar, all caps, and generally abusive language are immediate disqualifiers. Conversely any review describing both positives and negatives tends to get weighted as more accurate. What I'm really looking for is a theme. If I spot one in the negative reviews I may check a few of the positive or middle reviews to see if they mentioned it.

I agree with you about restaurant reviews and almost never look at them. There I will generally rely on either walking around or just asking the locals (the staff at a place you like can be a great source). People are generally quite proud of where they live and are more than willing to point out their favorite spots.

Posted by: Norm | September 8, 2008 2:43 PM | Report abuse

I agree with rj and Norm on the importance of themes. If I read a lot of reviews and only one or two complain about, say, a noisy hotel, then I don't worry about it. If, on the other hand, many of the reviews (including people who liked the overall product) mention a common problem, it has more credibility. I also weigh the importance of the problem, in my own view -- so maybe I don't worry about a hotel that is said to have unhelpful concierges, if I don't plan to rely on that service. I've had very good experiences with this approach, checking TripAdvisor reviews for hotels, Cnet reviews for tech stuff (I also looked at Amazon.com reviews in considering Bose headphones, and CircuitCity.com reviews for my HDTV), and Apple.com discussion forums for computers and iPods (you'll mostly find problems there -- people don't usually post to talk about how well everything works -- but it helped me consider drawbacks of certain products vs. others, and to be aware of potential problems (which then didn't actually materialize)).

Posted by: jane | September 8, 2008 3:24 PM | Report abuse

Try Roadfood.com.
Some years ago we toured the states (hit 42 of them) and used a book written by a team that seems to have turned into this site. It was called Eat Your Way Across the USA, and we did, and were happy at each stop. If Roadfood.com is at all comparable, and with some years of additional sampling since we were "roading", they should be superb in their reviews.

Posted by: Walt | September 8, 2008 5:19 PM | Report abuse

I always look to chowhound.com's message boards when looking for a place to eat.

Posted by: A | September 9, 2008 3:50 AM | Report abuse

I've found the negative reviews to be very helpful when buying hardware or software. I'll start with Amazon and then move on to other sites. When I see the same issues pop up elsewhere, the observations are reinforced. For example, I was interested in a certain keyboard/mouse designed specifically for Macs and then found that it had a number of issues including not being functional for left handed users. Another one was a Black & Decker battery charger. Looked great on paper and it got some good reviews (?) but I found it was a real turkey. These reviews really helped. If there are no negatives anywhere, then it's a good sign as far as I'm concerned. Just picked up the diNovo Edge and MX Air for Mac. They both worked great and the reviews really helped considering the large price tags on these items.

Posted by: JohnT | September 9, 2008 4:35 AM | Report abuse

For myself I find Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet useful site for international travel. Like you I tend to discard unspecific reviews, particularly if they are glowing reviews; there is a general review problem of false posting by those reviewed. In contrast to others I take negative reviews very seriously but I do factor in exactly what they are complainging about. Where electronics are concerned I find Amazon is sometimes useful but I prefer avsforum, CNET, and Dpreview as more technically expert for higher priced equipment

Posted by: Ian Stuart | September 9, 2008 5:02 AM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to tell which negative reviews are written by people working for competitors, and which positive reviews are written by people with a financial interest in the business or product. That alone requires you to remove any glowing or all negative reviews. And as mentioned by others, people with complaints, warranted or not, are more likely to enter a review, often as their only means of revenge towards a product or company. They also have no proven credibility, so why would I rely on them.

Posted by: Kevin | September 9, 2008 6:42 AM | Report abuse

The only issue I see with user reviews is that many retailers allow consumers to review a product without ever knowing that that consumer owns the product. This leads to manufacturers creating negative attention for a competitive product, even if none exist. They also increase the positive reviews of their own products before anyone has ever even purchased them. Why can't retailers do what eBay does, the only person who can post a review is the one who bought the product?

I always take user reviews with a grain of salt! This is a perfect example of buyer beware - NEVER rely on user reviews alone! Go to the store, look at the product, try the product in the store, and make sure it's what you want!

Posted by: Dean | September 9, 2008 8:11 AM | Report abuse

Rob - I toured the same area in July and wound up approaching it largely the same way as you (we also cruised the full length of the main drag in Hood River and settle on 3 Rivers Grill for lunch, excellent). The big difference was that, while I consider myself extraordinarily skillful at using Web resources to find lodging, I found myself trumped by my girlfriend's approach of good old-fashioned calling around. She scored several fabulous places to stay and negotiated ridiculous cheap rates. When I told her she was better than the Web, I don't think she quite got how much that means to me.

Posted by: aclark-va | September 9, 2008 10:02 AM | Report abuse

I do a drive-by eval: is the parking lot full at meal time? is there a line waiting to go in? If yes, I stop to look at the menu and ask people leaving if they eat there regularly and what they like best and least about the place.

Posted by: Fred T | September 9, 2008 4:25 PM | Report abuse

As a pair of senior skeptics, a trek past several alternatives coupled with menu reviews and a look inside is our primary selection process for restaurants. Lodging is dealt with by staying with reputable chains and using their websites to fine tune our selection. I'd echo my perceived consensus of these posts. NEVER rely solely on user reviews, however, often some contain that added kernel of information that improves our selection process.

Posted by: Ken | September 9, 2008 4:44 PM | Report abuse

I find that unless there are a lot of reviews for a given restaurant/product/whatever, you can't tell a lot from review sites. That said, some reviews are more helpful than others... I generally ignore ranters and pay more attention to people who write intelligently. I also find CD reviews and book reviews to be less subjective and therefore more helpful; product reviews and restaurant reviews seem more subjective and thus less helpful.

I've gotten the best guidance from real guidebooks (like the Rough Guide) and real people (like hotel staff or friends).

Yelp has turned me on to some places in my area I didn't know about, but it only makes a real impression when there are 10 reviews or more.

Posted by: Tony | September 9, 2008 5:19 PM | Report abuse

I always read the reviews of call girls on
TER before I invest my time and money. Shame there were no reviews of wife on line before we got married. The reviews would have titled "No not tonight honey I have a Headache" and the next night the same thing.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 10, 2008 6:46 AM | Report abuse

I think it is actually pretty easy to determine which reviews make sense and are worth listening to. Random rantings and absurd complaints about silly issues are easy to spot and ignore. When people write balanced comments those tend to be the most persuasive to me. I tend to also discount the people who just love everything about the product or service as shills who aren't to be trusted.
Are user comments a prefect system? No, particularly not when the product has a very limited number of reviews, but it can often provide useful information, as it is one of the few cracks in the marketing/hype armor that would otherwise surround most products not important or interesting enough to be reviewed by professional reviewers like the author, Mossberg, etc.

Posted by: BigW | September 10, 2008 12:24 PM | Report abuse

The wisdom of crowds advantage of online reviews assumes that there actually is a crowd of people participating. It is only natural for folks with biased opinions (ie restaurant owners) to write the first reviews. So I don't pay a lot of attention to posts with less then 10 reviews, and I certainly don't trust the first few.

Most review apps tally how many users found a review helpful. Sorting reviews by "most helpful" brings the best reviews rather than the newest.

An emerging technology, the ability to read reviews from "people like me" is being offered by companies like Last Piece Software . I think this is the ultimate solution...finding reviewers whose opinion is likely to match mine.

Most importantly, if you read reviews, be sure to return the favor and write reviews to help others!

Posted by: Dan | September 11, 2008 9:14 AM | Report abuse

Hi, I'm a co-founder of ApartmentRatings.com.

Just wanted to give you some stats from our own internal survey about this issue, since this is something we care a lot about as it affects the usefulness of the site:

Of 650 renters who had read reviews for their apartment community and were asked to "please rate the accuracy of the reviews you have read for any apartments where you have lived," they responded:

Completely or very accurate: 53%
Some accurate/some not-so-accurate: 37%
Not accurate or totally off: 10%

We're working on releasing some additional features over the next few months that should increase the usefulness of the site even more.

Hope that helps!

Posted by: Jeremy at ApartmentRatings.com | September 13, 2008 12:09 PM | Report abuse

As long as you don't base your entire decision on third party reviews there shouldn't be too much of a problem. I think reviews in general can make the decision making process a little easier.

Jippidy.com - Video Yellow Pages

Posted by: George | September 13, 2008 10:36 PM | Report abuse

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