The internet was abuzz on Wednesday Dec. 7 with a story written by a Vice UK journalist who managed to get a fake restaurant to the number one slot of London’s top-rated restaurants on TripAdvisor. The journalist, Oobah Butler, formerly had a gig writing fake restaurant reviews for the travel website, and set up the stunt ostensibly to show how easy it is to game the system in the age of fake news.
In reality, it wasn’t some light-handed hacking of the algorithm that allowed this to happen. Butler worked rather hard to orchestrate the charade, enlisting friends and family to write bogus reviews, getting a burner phone and fake email to field reservation requests, photographing fake food, and building a website. While he succeeded rather spectacularly—both at his initial aim of getting the top slot and at garnering the orgy of publicity he seemed to desire—”fake restaurants” on TripAdvisor probably aren’t a widespread problem most travelers need to worry about. As the company said itself in response to the fracas:
“Generally, the only people who create fake restaurant listings are journalists in misguided attempts to test us,” wrote a TripAdvisor rep in response to Butler’s request for comment. “As there is no incentive for anyone in the real world to create a fake restaurant it is not a problem we experience with our regular community.”
That being said, while fictitious restaurants aren’t common, using TripAdvisor does require a good amount of discernment these days. Paid-for or incentivized reviews are—despite TripAdvisor’s attempts to at a crack down —not unheard of. But perhaps even more vexingly, the platform has almost become a victim of its own appeal.
TripAdvisor’s sheer number of listings and reviews—along with its overall lack of curation—means you can find everything from luxury hotels like the Palmer House Hilton (above) to the mass market coffee chain a half a mile away. With a reported 500 million plus reviews, how’s a traveler to parse the worth-it from the worthless? Quartzy has you covered.
First, restaurants that are “so exclusive bookings are made by appointment only,” generally aren’t found in the top ten of TripAdvisor. This is especially true in a city with a culinary scene as cultivated and competitive as London. No one is saying that good eats can’t be found on the site. But recently-opened restaurants known only to city-insiders are more likely to be found on the Instagram Stories of a city’s most in-the-know food blogger or generously revealed to you by the bartender at a hipster hotel. If you’re looking for something esoteric or of-the-moment, you probably shouldn’t be looking at TripAdvisor
Second, don’t confuse rankings with curation. In general, relying on TripAdvisor’s restaurant rankings can lead to disappointment for foodies. After all, these aren’t curated, but crowdsourced by numbers of reviews, which means you’re at the will of the masses. Take, for example, London’s top 20 restaurants in TripAdvisor: two of the coveted spots belong to the same mid-market chain, Pizza Union. While there is nothing inherently wrong with Pizza Union, I can tell you few Londoners would place it in their list of “must-eats” in the capital. Rather, its high ranking is a function of mass appeal.
Another example? What is generally considered one of the best Turkish restaurants in London, Mangal 2 Ocakbasi, in Dalston, is the 5,805th, best restaurant in London on TripAdvisor and only has 100 reviews. Does that mean its food (pictured below) is not good? Of course not—it even made Eater’s curated London top ten in November—it means that most of its patrons don’t write TripAdvisor reviews.
Next, it’s important to read reviews with a grain of (culturally diverse) salt. People travel with wildly different cultural expectations, which are often on clear display in the way they write TripAdvisor reviews. For example, a commonly-seen complaint of Paris hotel rooms on TripAdvisor is “tiny rooms and bathrooms.” This might be true for a traveler from Texas or California, but someone familiar with living in European cities might have an entirely different expectation of space. For this reason, it’s just as important to consider who is writing the review as what it says. (Also, if someone just sounds like an asshole, it’s best to just consider their review an outlier).
Tried and true local spots are to be found on TripAdvisor, but they’re not always obvious. These are the kinds of establishments that are broadly popular, but not so overrun with tourists that they lack any authentic appeal. The hardest part is scoping these out. In this case, it’s a good idea to narrow down your searches by type or neighborhood. Searching for something specific, like “the best bifana in Lisbon” is more likely to land you at a spot that does this as a specialty—like the wonderful but otherwise totally unremarkable-looking lunch counter of O Trevo (pictured above)—than, say, searching for “best lunch spots in Lisbon.” Specificity helps lead you to jackpots.
Lastly, don’t solely rely on TripAdvisor. This one’s kind of a cop-out, but while TripAdvisor can be a great tool when traveling, over-reliance on it is generally not the makings of a great trip. It’s best used as a starting point, cross referencing tool, or a way to make sure the hotel you’re about to book doesn’t have completely terrible beds or wifi. But we suggest that in concert with the internet, you use your common sense, your sense of adventure, and the spirit of flânerie to guide your trip.