We were sitting in a restaurant in Peru wondering if we could trust the food, when an idea struck. We ordered a drink, connected to the wifi and pulled up TripAdvisor. We discovered that out of the 76 restaurants in the city, the one we had been corralled into was rated 72. Not only was the food rated as "awful" or "tasteless" by other travelers, but many of the comments claimed the restaurant changed prices when you got your bill. We added up the price of our drinks and service fee, left it on the table and hastily made an exit. We were stopped at the door and told that the price was 10 more soles than what we'd paid. I showed the owner the menu. The price came down 5 soles immediately, but he wouldn't budge on the extra few soles he was overcharging. We paid it and left.
Lesson learned: Read the reviews.
It was at that moment we came up with another amazingly clever idea. We would eat at the the number one-rated restaurant in town, then go to the worst-rated restaurant. We'd film the entire thing and then compare why one restaurant could be so bad compared to another. It would be an amazing social experiment, as well as a lesson in hotel/restaurant management. When we entered the first restaurant, it was an obvious change from the previous experience. The decor was amazing, the service wonderful, the food presentation great, the music fabulous—in short, everything was perfect.
We were stuffed when we left the restaurant, but a deal is a deal. We'd still give the worst establishment a fighting chance; we'd champion the underdog and eat at the one place that had only terrible reviews—though at second glance we noticed this almost perfect record of awfulness was tarnished. There was one "average" review listed. That means that from all the patrons who'd tasted the kitchen's offerings, at least one person made it through the meal and decided it wasn't the worst he'd ever had. We Googled the restaurant and couldn't find it on the map. We asked the locals if they'd heard of it; no one knew. It had disappeared into the twilight zone of restaurant obscurity. It seemed that being the worst might be just as hard to maintain as being the best.
Reviews, obviously, can't be trusted completely. I recently read one in which a tourist in Mexico gave a hotel a bad rating because the TV didn't have much programming in English, blaming the hotel for his dislike of Mexican television. Reviews can be biased based on one guest's single bad experience, while others might rate a property with one star as retaliation for some petty demand that wasn't fulfilled by the staff. Yelp, in my opinion, has more whiners than TripAdvisor. On the other hand, TripAdvisor now allows travelers to book directly on their site, so one might wonder if advertisers sway the reviews a bit. Then you have other websites such as Fodor's, Hotels.com and Booking.com which also offer reviews from their customers for their particular service. The best solution: read a few comments and then combine the results to find your own conclusion.
Usually hotel and restaurant reviews are determined by three factors: location, service and quality of product.
Location is objective in that its just the distance or difficulty involved in getting to the establishment. Hotels far away from anything of interest are generally less desirable. Proximity to loud clubs or dangerous areas can lessen the value of a place as well. Sometimes being close to a metro or train station can be an asset for travelers without cars. I recently booked a cheap hotel in Lima just to have a place to store my luggage for the day, charge my camera and regroup for a late flight that night. When we got to the hotel, I had my taxi turn around and take me to the nicer part of town. The neighborhood looked scary and the potentially unsafe factor outweighed the value of the cheap room.
Quality for hotels can be interpreted as many things including the size of the room, the comfort of the bed, amenities, view, cleanliness, quality of bathroom fixtures, water pressure, temperature, and the overall layout, decor and look of the room. For restaurants, it's often portion size, flavor, ambiance, decor, presentation, cleanliness and possibly the creativity of the menu items or the chef attached to them. Prioritize and decide which of these are most important.
Service can often be the most difficult area for the restaurant or hotel to control. The property might have the best customer satisfaction policies in effect, but one bad waiter or hotel receptionist can destroy the entire experience. If you read enough reviews, it's easy to sort out the guests who are determined to leave terrible reviews from guests who write objectively about their experience. Service in a hotel might also include an early check-in or late check-out, a welcome drink, friendliness at the counter, and the willingness of the staff to correct a problem with the room if one arises. Service in a restaurant is less complex in that it's really just about the waiter getting your foods and drinks in a timely manner, giving you guidance if you ask for it and being friendly and making you feel welcome. If you're not having a great experience at a restaurant or hotel, ask yourself which one of these qualities are lacking. Bringing the exact problem or even a possible solution to the manager's attention can sometimes solve the problem immediately.
TripAdvisor can be a valuable ally when traveling but can't be trusted at face value. If you want a quick guide to the best eats, places to stay and things to do, read the experiences of the people who have been there. Cross check these reviews with other websites like Hotels.com, Booking.com, Venere or TripExpert. Everyone has their own opinion, so averaging out the comments and cross-examining reviews with other websites will give you a great feel for what a place is really like. Or, if you really want to help others, write your own reviews.