Chris Elliott looked into hotel rating sites like TripAdvisor.com and found that hotels are sometimes cooking the books, posting fake reviews themselves or offering discounts to travelers in exchange for positive reviews posted online.
This is in addition to all of the other problems with using broad-based experiences of travelers posted online, such as that only the best and worst experiences tend to get posted, that hotels do change and renovate over time (so recent stays are key), and that each guest has a somewhat different filter. Numerical rankings aren’t going to be consistent across individual travelers.
All of this is true, but I’m not sure how much it really matters. It’s important obscure and lesser-traveled destinations, where hotels may have only a couple reviews at most. But it’s difficult to overwhelm the vast majority of reviews which are genuine.
The key to understanding a hotel review is never to look at a numerical ranking. I’ve seen plenty of people downgrade the Ritz-Carlton Central Park because room service breakfast is expensive. It’s the flippin’ Ritz-Carlton. In Manhattan. Of course it’s expensive. Some would even consider that a feature — to the extent it’s offered in exchange for quality — rather than a bug.
You want to look for consistent themes, most of which would potentially warn you off of a property rather than encourage you to go there. Do several people mention mold? Dirty carpets? That valet parking takes forever? It’s the consistent mentions of specific items that are useful to catalog, and which you then need to filter through your own preferences in a play to stay.
While you may need to have your bogus detector on when reading glowing reviews, I do find Trip Advisor to be hugely valuable.