25 Aug, 2012 @ 13:30
9 mins read

TripAdvisor on trial: An Olive Press investigation

tripadvisor on trial

By James Bryce and Jon Clarke (author of Dining Secrets of Andalucia)

HE admits to waking up every day and needing to pinch himself when he looks at the current list of Andalucia’s best restaurants, according to travel website TripAdvisor.

For at the top of one of the region’s eight provinces comes his very own establishment, which even he admits should not be there.

“It is nowhere near the best. Sure, it should be in the top 20, but at the top, no way,” he concedes, understandably insisting on anonymity.

What it boils down to, he admits, is plain and simple, knowing ‘how to play TripAdvisor’.

“It is all about knowing how to make your punters happy,” he continues. “It certainly helps to get the all-important five-star reviews… and, of course, to deal with the bad reviews as quickly as possible,” he adds.

This, of course, is hardly surprising with TripAdvisor now easily the most powerful travel website in the world.

Claims businesses  post favourable reviews about their own places are manifest

It can make or break a business and is becoming increasingly influential in shaping the itineraries of millions of tourists seeking recommendations on where to stay and eat.

Attracting 56 million visitors a month, the website, set up by Stephen Kaufer in 2000, has 60 million reviews posted in 21 different languages.

All-in-all, 26 businesses are reviewed every minute.

And there lies the problem.

The reviews – that give scores of zero to five – are mostly done by amateurs, by travellers who have frequently never visited a city before, and may have hardly eaten out.

These are diners who will boast about giving a ‘zero’ score to a restaurant because of its high price and experimental food, when it is famous for being creative and has a couple of Michelin stars, as was the case recently with Andalucia’s award-winning Calima.

‘Trippies’ like nothing more than to wax lyrical about a hotel’s failings or a restaurant’s errors. There have even been documentaries made about their eccentricities.

It is no surprise then that hoteliers and restaurateurs are coming under ever-increasing pressure to tailor their businesses to the site’s users in order to gain favourable reviews.

Some, as it turns out, have been doing rather more than tailoring, with questions increasingly being asked about the authenticity of some of the reviews.

Claims that businesses have posted favourable reviews about their own establishment are manifest, despite the site insisting it employs the most rigorous tests to prevent it.

Among the more serious accusations are claims of ‘organised racketeering’ in the trade of good reviews, which some believe have become a form of currency.

One Italian chef, Amerigo Capria, told El Pais this month about how he had been offered five good reviews on TripAdvisor from a wine supplier instead of getting the customary free case of wine for every 10 he bought.

“I was quite surprised and rejected the offer but I have heard of companies that charge €2,000 to provide favourable reviews for your business on the site,” he claims.

He has now made a formal complaint to Italy’s restaurant association, which has started legal action against TripAdvisor.

There have also been problems in the UK, where the advertising watchdog has launched an investigation into TripAdvisor following more than 2,000 complaints from hotel and restaurant owners about fake or defamatory reviews.

It follows a lawsuit issued by Scottish restaurant Cock & Bull against TripAdvisor for failing to remove a potentially defamatory review.

The issue has also raised its head here, with well known Spanish hotel reviewer Guy Hunter-Watts telling the Olive Press how ‘unscrupulous’ businesses are often tempted to boost rankings via friends.

As he explains: “It’s surprising how often, reading through the reviews, you come across repeated words and phrases or a remarkably similar style of writing: the temptation is clearly huge.”

Others go even further, such as hotelier Don Gonzalo del Rio Gonzalez-Gordon, from Sevilla, who insists: “I don’t trust it at all. It is extremely unfair. Normally all the horrible people write reviews, the nice ones never do.

“I would never trust it at all.”

As the Olive Press has indeed discovered with our in-depth study of the website’s picks in Andalucia the site is riddled with mistakes and discrepancies.

Our team of six journalists has taken a general look at the website’s top ranked businesses, as well as focussed on four key towns – Marbella, Vejer, Ronda and Sevilla – to see if the findings of TripAdvisor are correct.

Using a string of travel guides, websites, plus up to 10 local professionals and journalists in each town, we have compared and contrasted a Top Five of restaurants and hotels for each location.

And it is little surprise to discover that places like the ‘Slice of New York Pizza’ restaurant in Sevilla – in the Top 10 for Sevilla province – should in fact come nowhere near the top.

As local businessman and hotelier Patrick Reed, of Corral del Rey, confirms: “That is a complete joke. How can it get in there? It is just a slice of pizza.

“It is anomalies like that that make TripAdvisor flawed.”

In particular, we found that restaurants that had only been open for a few months were ranking much higher than well-established and consistently performing stalwarts.

In some cases TripAdvisor is simply inaccurate, as with the listing of the highly-popular Molino del Santo hotel, near Ronda.

While situated in the village of Benaojan in Malaga province for 26 years, according to TripAdvisor it is the number one hotel in Cadiz province.

For a site that claims to be professional this is a serious inaccuracy.

Even worse is the case of certain restaurants deliberately receiving bad reviews.

Ase Donso, of Vejer’s top ranked restaurant Patria, told how a friend’s establishment got a bad review by a couple who had not even eaten there.

“It turns out this couple had not got a table two nights in a row, having failed to book, and were so disgruntled about it they slammed the restaurant on TripAdvisor,” she reveals. “It is just not on.”

Then there is the problem of bad reviews from dissatisfied customers who complain about issues well beyond the control of the hotel and restaurant owners.

In Ronda, top of the list is Fuente de la Higuera, a well-known rural hotel that has long come top in the town and is usually in the Top 10 for Andalucia.

It is a fantastic place to stay which ticks all the boxes.

But just 400 metres up the road is the equally charming Molino del Arco, a beautifully renovated, historic building with huge grounds that consistently scores much lower on TripAdvisor than its neighbour.

When the Olive Press analysed why this was, it found that while both benefitted from customers waxing lyrical about their experience, the difference was in the 10% who complained about access.

Despite being in close proximity, the two hotels are accessed via different public roads, with Fuente de la Higuera having a tarmac road and Molino del Arco a dirt track.

Access, it seems, is clearly a very important consideration for many reviewers on TripAdvisor and is something that can prove the downfall of even the best hotels and restaurants.

In one instance another Ronda hotelier, Rodrigo Ashorn, saw his La Cazalla hotel drop out of the Top Five after receiving a heavily critical review from a punter who got a puncture on his way to the hotel.

“I actually went out of my way to change the tyre for them and was more than sympathetic, but then they suddenly wrote this awful review about how impossible it is to get to us,” he explains.

“It is so unfair, it is a public road which is the town hall’s responsibility, we have actually spent money on trying to improve it and it really is not that bad.

“At the end of the day it is a rural hotel and we make that very clear, so sometimes you cannot avoid things like that.

“But we have now dropped out of the Top Five and it is damaging our business,” he adds.

Despite the site’s popularity, not everyone is a fan of TripAdvisor, with some preferring a more traditional approach to finding a bed for the night.

“I am not at all in favour of it,” Jaen-based author and travel writer Michael Jacobs tells the Olive Press.

“I would rather use local websites like Dining Secrets of Andalucia or ask people on the street in the city I am visiting than consult TripAdvisor.

“For starters they always miss the eccentric places.”

TripAdvisor is a fairer representation of hotels than restaurants

But while there is plenty of negativity surrounding the site, there is no denying the potential commercial benefits to hotels and restaurants which may otherwise remain hidden gems.

As Donso of Vejer’s Patria confirms, the website has been very important to her business, bringing ‘probably two tables a night as a result of TripAdvisor’.

Whether good or bad, the site is considered a ‘bible’ for many travellers, meaning a spate of good reviews can drastically increase revenue that may otherwise not have been generated.

And one thing that must be made clear, there are quite a few overlaps – often as much as 50% – between our more objective Olive Press rankings to TripAdvisor’s Top Fives.

When comparing businesses of a certain age and ones that have been reviewed hundreds of times, it seems to start evening out.

“I think TripAdvisor is a fairer representation of hotels than restaurants because with a restaurant you only have a couple of hours to get it right,” reasons James Stuart, owner of Hotel La Casa del Califa, also in Vejer.

“But hotels might have three or four days to get everything right and fix any problems that a client might have, which is to their advantage.”

He adds that restaurateurs and hotel owners should have equal rights to respond to reviews, with current rules loaded in favour of customers.

“You are allocated less characters and the text is a lighter colour when responding to criticism,” he claims.

Another important factor in which businesses do well on TripAdvisor is the type of clientele that they attract.

Gary Biston, owner of La Vista de Medina, voted the number one restaurant in Medina Sidonia, says: “Certain restaurants attract clients who are more likely to use computers and put up a review.

“While others are full of old Spanish money and discerning travellers.

“These people do not use computers, they have staff that use computers for them and they just do not review restaurants.

“They recommend them by word-of-mouth to the people they went to public school with.”

Luckily though, it seems, travellers are finally getting the message that you cannot rely on TripAdvisor.

As Patrick Reed, from Corral del Rey, whose own hotel scores highly on the site, coming third in Sevilla, explains: “I would never just use TripAdvisor for a holiday. I use various boutique hotel sites and then cross reference by looking at the reviews on TripAdvisor, always reading between the lines.”

So perhaps the site has a place, after all.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

30 Top Hotels in Andalucia according to TripAdvisor:
1. La Villa Marbella, Marbella
2. Hotel La Casa, Torrox
3. Molino del Santo, Benaojan
4. Hotel Los Castanos, Cartajima
5. Vincci Seleccion Aleysa Hotel Boutique and Spa, Benalmadena
6. Casa Grande, Jerez de la Frontera
7. El Cielo de Canar, Canar
8. The Marbella Heights Boutique Hotel, Marbella
9. Hotel Palacio Blanco, Velez-Malaga
10. Hotel Finca El Cerrillo, Canillas de Albaida
11. Hotel La Luna Blanca, Torremolinos
12. Hotel La Fuente De La Higuera, Ronda
13. Hospederia de El Churrasco, Cordoba
14. La Almunia del Valle, Monachil
15. Hotel Casa 1800, Sevilla
16. Hotel Ronda, Ronda
17. AlmaSevilla – Hotel Palacio de Villapanes, Sevilla
18. Apart Hotel Koala Tarifa, Tarifa
19. Hacienda Minerva, Zuheros
20. El Cortijo La Prensa, Rute
21. Hotel La Seguiriya, Alhama de Granada
22. Hotel Don Paula, Cordoba
23. Hotel Puerta del Mar, Nerja
24. Hotel La Fonda, Benalmadena
25. Hotel Claude Marbella, Marbella
26. Hotel Casa Rosa, Benalmadena
27. Cortijo Puerto el Peral, Almogia
28. Santa Isabel la Real, Granada
29. Corral del Rey, Sevilla
30. Hotel Holos, Sevilla

30 Top Restaurants in Andalucia according to TripAdvisor:
1. De Locos Tapas, Ronda
2. Restaurante La Fuente, Benalmadena
3. Tapeo de Cervantes, Malaga
4. Cafe Fresco, Torremolinos
5. The Lounge at Pinoccios, Benalmadena
6. La Montana, Bedar
7. Erase Una Vez, Benalmadena
8. Casa Joya Guesthouse, Velez Rubio
9. Restaurante Patria, Vejer de la Frontera
10. La Mandragora, Calahonda
11. La Vista de Medina, Medina-Sidonia
12. Restaurant Il Girasole, Benalmadena
13. Meson El Sacristan, Ronda
14. El Chaleco, Almunecar
15. Oliva, Nerja
16. Henleys, Sitio de Calahonda
17. La Pampa, Estepona
18. Restaurant Molino del Santo, Benaojan
19. Santorini Restaurant, Fuengirola
20. Splash Bistro, Frigiliana
21. Restaurante Messinna, Marbella
22. Amanhavis Hotel and Restaurant, Benahavis
23. Bijou Bar and Bistro, Marbella
24. Bar Valentinos, Olvera
25. La Oliva, Granada
26. Kate’s Cottage, Torremolinos
27. Cala Luna Restaurant, Fuengirola
28. La Pincelada, Sevilla
29. Mulse, Rincon de la Victoria
30. Bar Kiki, Granada

How we did it: 

The Olive Press’ team of six journalists used four Andalucian towns as the focus for our study of TripAdvisor. 

For Marbella, Ronda, Sevilla and Vejer de la Frontera we spoke to between five and 10 people who had expert local knowledge, as well as consulting guide books and other websites.

The aim was to create an overall picture of which hotels and restaurants were deemed the most deserving of a Top Five listing, while attempting to remain as objective as possible.

We felt it was important to highlight the flaws and various discrepancies in the way TripAdvisor ranks establishments, and the negative effects this can have on a business.

But we also wanted to acknowledge the positive aspects of the site and how it can help to boost businesses in places which may otherwise not benefit from passing trade.

In some cases as with Marbella’s and Ronda’s top hotel, it was spot on.



  1. I used TripAdvisor because I like owls. I am a huge aficionado of owls, so I travel all over the world seeking owls for photos.

    After spending almost 24 hours on TripAdvisor I did not see a single article or review explaining where I can find their iconic owl; the large owl with dull yellow plumage, thick, lined features, pointy ears and mismatched, red/green eyes. I was sorely disappointed.

    I would use TripAdvisor for basic things, such as finding restaurants. However, it is very misleading if you are interested in owl watching.

  2. TripAdvisor reviews, Facebook likes, Google rankings, twitter followers etc etc – all a total waste of time for finding facts. All can be manipulated and bought en masse online in seconds.

    Any establishment that relies on TripAdvisor and constantly worries about their reviews is not concentrating on its core business.

  3. Great series of articles in the paper version. My go-to reference when looking for somewhere to stay is the Sawday’s guide. It has never failed, well not yet. Tripadvisor is to be taken with a shovel-ful of salt…

  4. I love Tripadvisor and I wouldn’t go to a hotel that I had not vetted via their website. In the past you had to rely on guides like Michelin or Zagat where a so-called ‘expert’ would tell you where to go. And that isn’t flawed and open to bribery?! Now people like me have a say, for better and worse. By the way, you cannot give a zero, I tried, but the minimum is 1.

  5. “I love Tripadvisor and I wouldn’t go to a hotel that I had not vetted via their website.”


    “In the past you had to rely on guides like Michelin or Zagat where a so-called ‘expert’ would tell you where to go.”

    are contradictory.

    So now you rely on a ‘TripAdvisor expert’ to tell you where you will and won’t go. Great logic there Dante.

  6. Fred,
    my logic is simple, even flawed Trip advisor is a compilation of millions of reviews from people. Zagat, Michelin etc, are “experts” where one person is judging a restaurant… Really open to bribery and abuse or at best pure subjectivity. Trip advisor does not have an expert but millions of people talking about places. the power of the numbers, the power of the people. there is no comparison! Now you see my point?

  7. Dante – “Zagat, Michelin etc, are “experts” where one person is judging a restaurant… Really open to bribery and abuse or at best pure subjectivity.”

    I wrote for one a major restaurant guide (which shall remain nameless). Usually they aren’t supposed to know who you are – but often they do. And you get very special treatment for it.

    Not only that, but the guide foots the bill (for you and one other person). And they encourage you to spend well so you can sample a variety of dishes. If you’re ordering a lobster you’re going to get treated differently than if you’re ordering a bowl of soup.

    So while I was never offered any type of bribe, the way the system is set up does make everything seem nicer for the reviewer than the average diner.

  8. Great revealing article. I have sometimes utilized TripAdvisor. My partner and I are frequent visitors to Frigiliana, having spent 3 months there each of the last 4 years. I was most interested in the top 30 rating of Splash Bistro in Frigiliana. For the uninformed, Splash Bistro is the bar/food kiosk adjacent to the municipal swimming pool. It is enclosed by temporary plastic panels except in the summer. It is a large, featureless space with no atmosphere, serving pub food. Of the 10 or so places to eat in Frigiliana, Splash Bistro would be last on everyone’s list. Shame on you TripAdvisor!

  9. Andrew – ” It is a large, featureless space with no atmosphere, serving pub food.”

    Do you mean Splash Bistro or Frigiliana?

    I only ask because this describes some entire cities in Spain.

  10. Well there you go Andrew…precisely what we hoped and why we undertook this test…hopefully this answers Dante’s concerns…or maybe he is a Splash Bistro type of guy? Me, I’m sticking with our list because e professionals we chose have live in their towns for years and are well informed…coincidentally I did a couple of years reviewing hotels for Sawdays… And probably passed/ included in the guide around 20 per cent of those I visited, so quite rigorous. It felt bad sometimes after meeting lovely, friendly and hospitable owners, but hey that was the job…

  11. Dante, millions of people do not talk about individual establishments. Often there are only a handful of reviews. To not visit somewhere because it is not on TripAdvisor, which is what you said you do, means that TripAdvisor controls your decisions in life. That is sad.

  12. The main issue that I have with TripAdvisor is that you do not have to have eaten or slept at the place in question before submitting a review. That alone leaves the review system open to abuse. And it does get abused.

    The second issue I have is that all too often reviews of restaurants in Spain focus on whether English is spoken or “the romantic atmosphere” rather than on the quality of the food.

    For hotels I look through the reviews on “www.booking.com”. (I know that is not the only source – there are others.) At least you have to have stayed at the hotel in question before being invited to submit a review. That review is then moderated before it goes online. Ok, so there are some reviews that, for me, are awry but you can be sure that the booking.com system has not been abused in the same way that TripAdvisor has been, and still is.

  13. John Clarke, I am surprised by your “attack”. You clearly have an interest on this as you publish your own lists, so you have a duty to be neutral, but you actually respond to your own article to side up with people in your favor and against me because I don’t? Where is the plurality here? And are you going to publish this comment? Why should I trust your reviews more than Trip advisor’s. I can read reviews in yelp, google, tripadvisor, holidaycheck,zoover, etc and I can see after reading a dozen or so the common themes of a place, are they rude or have good service, is the food good or just decent, etc? Then you have the people who are really angry at the place and will say negative things. I know how to read pass that and I bet most people understand how to read reviews and discern the good ones from the ‘fake’ ones. This is the web 2.0 where user generated content rules, for better and worse. The power is no longer with the publishers, but with the users. That is why these sites have millions of users. It may not be perfect, but much better than you, John, telling us where to go. With all due respect. :)

  14. Dante, I would NEVER trust a TripAdvisor review of a hotel or restaurant, be it very bad or excellent. The reasons for that are set out in my post on August 27th, 2012 at 12:31 pm. Small wonder then why TripAdvisor has been so discredited in the UK.

    For what it is worth, Jon Clark is a newspaper publisher whose reputation and, by extension that of his newspaper, depends in part on the quality of his restaurant reviews. That does not necessarily mean that I always agree with them.

    However, I would far rather give credit to Jon´s review of a place than a TripAdvisor review posted by someone who might not have even eaten there. At best, I would look to see how many other reviews of restaurants that particular poster had submitted.

    Many of the TripAdvisor reviews of the Hotel Molino del Santo in Benaoján were at least submitted by people who had also submitted other hotel reviews, even if they got the location wrong: in Cádiz province instead of Málaga province.

  15. Tony, Following your argument, in my Facebook account I see the recommendations of my friends that I trust much more than Jon Clarke or any other magazine that pushes their lists to me (like they don’t have an agenda? like they are not making money from ads??) When I read the comments that my friends made about places they visit, restaurants, hotels and so forth I am more than willing to take their opinion face value as I know who they are. This is one of the strengths of the internet. We are all connected all the time and receive tons of information from multiple sources. In the past people had to rely on hotel brochures that were always embellishing the truth, now you cant get away as millions of people in the internet will not let anyone get away with it, so to speak. Same for restaurants. They might be a 3 star michelin restaurant… says who? Maybe for the reviewer who is being paid to eat there and they feel like a ‘God”. Then they preach to the rest their views. Well, rather than having one fantastic critic or 10, I take my chances with the millions of users of the internet. And yes, I take the good with the bad. Nothing is perfect, but the power of the numbers wins it for me every time.

    The world is no longer in print and this paper knows that as they have a great web page. The world is online and we must adapt to it and yes, shifting through information and sorting the good from the bad is a chore, but the same was true of the printing press, or do you believe everything you read?? I rest my case :)

  16. Dante, this article (and subsequent Comments thread) is about the rights and wrongs of TripAdvisor. Just look at the title of the article: “TripAdvisor on trial”.

    It is not about your friends, how much their recommendations are worth or your Facebook account.

  17. Tony, this is the interent and hence it is a free tool to express your opinions. You do not dictate the rules, do you?

    If you read my respond compeletly you can see that I am actually responding to your comments with my own and completely within the thread of the article. I am just not either agreeing with you or the publisher. That’s the beauty of the Internet. You say you follow Jon’s advice the publisher and I say I follow my friends advice, what’s is the difference between your comments and mine? Once again I rest my case :) :)

  18. TripAdvisor was owned by EXPEDIA up to few months ago….and now , even if officially independent ( according to stock exchange… ) they are one head!
    No one in the universe is capable to distinguish fake positive and fake negative reviews, from genuine and reliable ones.
    Tripadvisor allows whoever wants to write a review without assuring the stay in the hotel…. so this is the IDEAL system to produce unfair competition, misleading advertising but above all….to be out of the law and to avoind paying taxes!
    TripaAdvisor has been already condamned : they canno use any more the slogan :”Get the Truth then go”….because the content publiched IS NO RELIABLE!!!!
    where is the value of reading misleading advertising!!?!?!?!?

  19. Interesting article. I check hotels out on Trip Advisor and have sometimes put on reviews, good and bad. I do take many with a pinch of salt and read between the lines. Booking.com is better as you need to have stayed in a hotel to review.

    Many hotels now offer perks for good reviews and others they are clearly made up. One hotel in the Caribbean offered two hours free internet for a review BEFORE they left. The Molino del Santo is always sending emails to add to their high number of reviews. Some of the small eating places on the Costa are obviously done by friends and relatives…who would bother to review a pie and chips at a greasy spoon ha ha ha.

  20. There are cafes serving breakfasts that outrank highly rated international restaurants. Even a dozen excellent reviews from a newly opened restaurant outranks restaurants that have 4-.5 to 5 point ratings that have been in operation for years. TripAdvisor is totally flawed, and best ignored.

  21. i never trust tripadvisor. reason they are not reliable in their assesments, of mainly eating places. i always rely word of mouth. this way you know they have eaten there. what is really bad about trip advisor they have no means of knowing if the comments are true or just lies. or just phony. this is a very bad system and tripadvisor should be made to correct. or put in a better system.

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