Online accommodation reviews: The truth uncovered.
A question I posed in my last article (Great Yarmouth, a decade of evolution) regarding reviews was ‘are any of them beneficial to anyone’. My reply suggested that because of online reviews the overall standards in Great Yarmouth were taken to a new height and this is true but it’s not as clear cut as that.
Most of us like to read reviews about an accommodation we plan to stay in and quite a few of us use the reviews to decide on where to stay but not everybody knows how it all works or what pitfalls they could fall into. In this article I plan to explain where the reviews that you see come from, the implications of using them to decide where to stay and the impact a review has on the accommodation. Any reference to review content is a factual account of some of the reviews received by Great Yarmouth accommodations.
Part one, where do the reviews come from?
As an accommodation owner, it’s fantastic to receive an excellent online review as it reflects the great lengths’ we go to ensure everyone has as good a stay as possible. There are several ways in which a review can be written about accommodation and each way has more than one online site to do it on, so how does it all work? I will narrow it down and talk about some of the more prominent sites: 1. Booking.com (online booking site), 2. Tripadvisor (dedicated review site) and 3. Trivago (Third party reviews). These 3 sites display reviews, and I’ve broken them up into different categories as they work differently to each other. Each of the categories, as well as the site referred to contain several other sites which work along the same lines but with different wording.
Online booking site reviews (Booking.com eg.)
When a booking is made online, the online site will send the booker an email after their stay asking them to give unvetted feedback about their experience of the accommodation during their stay. The booker doesn’t have to do this, but the booking site will keep resending the request until either the booker gives up and leaves feedback or a certain amount of time elapses then the requests do eventually stop. The requests are asked in words and the answers are translated by the site into numbered scores for example on this site you are asked to mark 6 individual areas (Staff, Comfort, Facilities, Location, Cleanliness & Value for Money) of the stay as bad, average, good or excellent. These are scored as 2.5, 5.0, 7.5 or 10. After you have judged each of the areas and the site translates the answers into numbered scores, the average of the numbered scores becomes the ‘review score’. So, if you thought 3 of the areas of your stay were excellent, 2 of the areas were good and one area was average, this would give a review score of 8.3. Extra judgements can be made to other areas of the stay but aren’t contributed to the accommodation’s displayed review scores. You are then given the opportunity to write your comments to accompany the review. (As I said earlier, the other booking sites vary slightly in the wordings but they all pretty much follow the same path). These review scores are combined with all the other review scores an accommodation has on that booking site and that, when divided by the amount of reviews, gives an overall average review score which is the score that is displayed against an accommodation’s listing, so if an accommodation has 10 reviews for example, 3 of which have an review score of 8.3, 4 have an review score of 9.2, 1 has an review score of 9.6 and the other 2 have an review score of 10, then the displayed overall average review score would be 9.1. After (usually) 2 years the oldest review is wiped off so you will only see the review scores for the last 2 years. With this system of reviews, a person looking at an accommodation can see the review scores for each of the 6 areas judged and any comments that are made by the reviewer. The accommodation owner, manager or representative is usually given the option to respond to these reviews, but these responses are subject to approval by the site before being displayed.
Dedicated review sites (Tripadvisor eg.)
I am calling these sites such as Trip Advisor dedicated review sites as they allow anybody who has registered with the site to write a review about anywhere without having had stayed there. (There are some of these sites that have also taken on the role of a booking site, but you don’t have to use this facility to leave a review and as it’s not connected to reviews I won’t talk about how this works in this article).
Sounds dangerous I know but there are measures in place to deal with fraudulent reviewers!
Whilst reviewing an accommodation through these sites you are asked to provide a rating (usually from 1 to 5) for your overall stay. You are then asked to leave your comments about your experience during your stay. This rating goes towards the accommodation’s ranking on the site and all reviews, no matter how old they are, remain visible for anyone to read. The ranking on the site is biased towards those who pay to enhance their listing but otherwise is worked out using an algorithm which is based on quality, quantity, consistency & recency. Older reviews don’t carry as much weight as newer reviews, higher scoring reviews rank higher than lower scoring reviews, more reviews count more than less reviews and consistency is what binds it all together. So, you can see as far as ranking on the site (how close to the top of the site’s listing an accommodation appears) is concerned, it will constantly change.
Example 1: If an accommodation (accommodation 1) is at the top of the ranking list and is receiving one 5 star review every week and the accommodation in position 2 (accommodation 2) receives two 5 star reviews every week then the ranking positions will swap because although both are receiving 5 star reviews, accommodation 2 is receiving more.
Example 2: If accommodation 1 and accommodation 2 both have 100 reviews, all the same age and all 5 star rated and the next day they both receive another review but accommodation 1 receives a 4 star review and accommodation 2 receives a 5 star review then the positions will swap because a 4 star review is worth less than a 5 star review in the algorithm.
Example 3: You may observe 2 accommodations that both have the same number of equally rated reviews but one of them is near the top of the ranking list and the other may be 20 positions below. This will be because the accommodation nearer to the top of the ranking list has more recent reviews than the other one.
There are probably hundreds of examples I could give, and I could go deeper into the details, but I think these 3 examples sum up how it works nicely.
After a review has been received, the accommodation owner, manager or representative has the opportunity to respond to the review and although not vetted, the response has guidelines within which to adhere to otherwise it could be removed. The accommodation also has access to tools to obtain more reviews such as an email request form that can be sent to the departed customer which when replied to with a review, the words: “Review collected in partnership with this hotel” will appear under it. Anybody can also click on the profile of the reviewer to discover any other reviews they have done for elsewhere which can prove useful.
Third Party reviews. (Trivago eg.)
The review scores you see on these sites are an accumulation of overall average review scores obtained from various booking sites and so can’t be directly added to by anyone wanting to write a review. There isn’t much more I can tell you about reviews on these sites other than, I’ve explained how the booking site reviews work in part 1, and I’ve said there are other booking sites that follow the same path, now add all the overall average review scores up across all the booking sites that are affiliated with this site, divide the answer by the amount of reviews in total and you’ll get the overall average review score that is displayed on this site. If you click on the review score, the site will direct you to which other booking sites the reviews have come from.
Now you know where the review scores come from, I’ll move onto the implications of using reviews as your main research tool when looking for somewhere to stay.
It’s very easy for anyone with access to the internet to research the area they want to visit, and for where they want to stay. Many people are swayed by what they see in accommodation reviews but what isn’t always taken into account, are some vital things which are taken from my experience and knowledge:
- Not the full picture: Not everyone who has stayed in a particular accommodation writes feedback via an online review, so the full picture isn’t available.
- Read the reviews: Many people are guilty of looking at reviews and their scores rather than reading them possibly resulting in their expectations not being met. (eg: a browser might see an accommodation with the best review scores across all platforms and assume it will have all facilities that could possibly be required by them only to arrive to find the accommodation doesn’t have a swimming pool or jacuzzi eg.)
- Don’t Pre judge: People read about amazing breakfasts only to find at breakfast their favourite sausages aren’t the norm.
- It’s clean for a reason: Some people are attracted to reviews that state how clean the accommodation is but are then bemused as to why their room is cleaned when they go out.
- Facilities for different types of accommodation: A big misunderstanding is after reading some great reviews about the fantastic service received, some readers occasionally assume the accommodation is a big hotel with all facilities including a car park, reception or massage parlour but on arrival realise a different story.
- Friendly and personal Bed & Breakfast service: If there are reviews that talk about how welcoming and lovely the hosts or owners are, be prepared for them to be nice to you, to say good morning, good night and ask whether you’ve had a good day. There are some people who don’t like this level of attention.
- Do your research: If reviewers talk about the location being very close to the attractions, don’t assume they would be the attractions you would want to see.
- Read the accommodation’s replies to determine this: There can be reviews written for accommodations by representatives of other accommodations which won’t always reflect the true story. And I don’t just mean on dedicated review sites!
- Crafty: Then there are ‘paid for’ reviews. Believe or not, there are people who charge for writing a series of positive ‘dedicated site’ reviews for any accommodation that wants to pay to climb up the ranking positions. This is illegal and action is taken by the sites to stop it happening, but it exists.
I’ve talked about where the online reviews that you see come from and I’ve covered most of the areas why you shouldn’t use reviews as your main source of research when looking for somewhere to stay, so now I’ll move onto the impact that reviews can have on the accommodation.
As previously stated, over the years reviews have pushed up the standards of accommodation by highlighting areas that could be improved on such as cleanliness, food, facilities, service etc and this is all fantastic for the reputation of the accommodation business but sadly there are some people that write reviews but don’t follow the rules of fairness. This is not so beneficial, for instance,
- Only negative reviewers: Lots of people only like to write a ‘dedicated review’ if they have something negative to say. They might have stayed in the same accommodation numerous times before and obviously enjoyed it or else they wouldn’t have returned but on this one occasion there was something they didn’t like so a decision is made to write a negative review with no thought of ever writing a positive review on any of the previous times.
- A negative review for the accommodation could be a positive review for you: I’ve seen several reviews for hotels that state the accommodation is full of older people, there is no karaoke or party dances and just a piano bar in the corner. These reviews were scored terribly, and the hotel would have suffered in the ranking, but the areas stated as terrible could be exactly what you look for. (This can be connected to part two, b)
- I’ve got the power: Occasionally people will use the power of writing reviews as a weapon against the accommodation by arriving and almost immediately indicating they will be writing a review.
- Sorry, can’t control the weather: If the weather isn’t perfect for some reviewers then the review platform can be used against the accommodation by scoring everything low. There isn’t anywhere they can review the weather, so it gets taken out on the accommodation which reflects negatively against the hard work that goes into helping make their stay as good as possible. This will lower the accommodation’s ranking for no fault of their own.
- Predetermined expectations: When people arrive with predetermined expectations that don‘t match the reality because they perhaps haven’t read the reviews properly (Part two, section b) or possibly haven’t read the accommodation policies then they are likely to write or score negative results in a review which in turn will lower the accommodation’s ranking. Again, through no fault of their own.
Accommodation standards have definitely been driven to higher levels as a result of reviews but whilst accommodation owners (or most of them) have been keeping up with the changing requirements of their customers, there are some customers that still want to retain the standards that they enjoyed in past times. For instance, I’ve seen other accommodation’s reviews that are marked down in all areas just because the default coffee on offer in the morning was fresh, ground coffee rather than the instant they wanted. Another review marked down all areas because the sausages were butcher’s sausages rather than a well known Irish brand. Another review stated the owners of the accommodation were “over the top” because they cleaned their room every day and scored all areas low in the review. I could go into loads of examples here, but I think you see the predicament of accommodation providers. None of these examples were ever discussed in person at the time and the issues only came to light through an online review.
So, this leads to my sum up of whether online reviews are good for the accommodation business.
The answer is yes, they are definitely good for improving standards across the accommodation business but, as you’ve read, there are issues with what you may read or see in an online review in terms of accuracy, source and intent so when you’re looking for somewhere to stay, please don’t just head for the reviews and decide to book a room on that basis alone. Instead use the reviews alongside any other research you might want to do and make sure you actually read the content of the reviews to clarify if that particular accommodation is for you, and also read the reply from the accommodation as you may can find more information and you can also see what kind of people own or run it. Sounds obvious I know, but you’d be surprised how many don’t.
I hope you find this as interesting as I did in writing it. My next article is coming soon.
Gary Smith, Kilbrannan Guest House, Great Yarmouth.