By Secrets of Paris contributing editor Bryan Pirolli
Trust is a tricky thing when traveling. Between the stories from your cousin Kathy, your new Lonely Planet, and those endless lists printed from the web, it’s hard to know which sources get it right when it comes to a destination. It’s especially difficult for a place like Paris and its endless amount of blogs, books, and websites.
How can you actually trust anything you read? This was a central question in my PhD thesis at the Sorbonne (don’t worry, I’m not about to get all academic on you here). The answer, however, was relatively clear after an online questionnaire with over 230 people and multiple interviews with writers and tourists in Paris: Travelers don’t ultimately trust any single source.
Before you throw out all of your research and give up on traveling entirely, just stop and think. Travel is a deeply personal experience, and as one of my interviewees said, one person’s heaven is another person’s version of hell. Just because a New York Times journalist gives a glowing review to a restaurant doesn’t mean much if the writer is a reckless spender who likes trendy food, while your more modest budget might favor traditional dishes.
The problem, however, is that the internet acts like a Roman vomitorium funneling anonymous information out to the public. It’s a total overload. According to my research, Paris tourists visit an average of 8 different websites to plan their trip, with some travelers clicking on more than 40. And among those websites, anonymous reviews on sites like TripAdvisor rank as the most highly trusted. Such sites are also the first stop for tourists researching Paris. Scary, right?
Maybe not. Professionally produced travel guides and blogs take the #2 and #3 spot behind TripAdvisor for trustworthy sites, which indicates that tourists are not simply submitting themselves to the masses of notoriously unreliable review sites. They are finding things to value in each type of website. Moreover, more than half of tourists report that the identity of online authors – even on TripAdvisor – is important or very important to them.
So then what can travelers look for to create trust with all of this online information? They consistently look to multiple sources, crosschecking them all in order to reduce doubt as much as possible about a purchase. My interviews with tourists also revealed a few strategies that, while far from perfect, work for each of them to create at least an illusion of trust within each source, be it a blog, TripAdvisor, or the professional media. Let’s take a look.
When it comes to blogs, which ones do you trust? Can you just click on a blog and know right away if there will be useful, accurate information? It takes a bit of digging, but it’s possible. Travelers look to see if they share common interests or have traveled to the same place. A young American traveler discussed how she always looks for blogs with a budget angle, easily limiting the scope of her research. It seems obvious, but try and get an idea of what the blog is about before you start scanning the posts.
More than that, the most important thing to look for is an “About Me” section. If it’s unclear who is writing the blog, red flags should shoot up immediately. Knowing that it’s an established expat writing as opposed to someone who just spent three months in Paris will allow you to judge the information accordingly. As one woman said:
“I know that some can be contrived and not very authentic but most of the time they have an air of authenticity, especially if it’s written in the first person and the blogger is in the photos, as well. I like it to validate what I’m about to do.”
Also, with blogs you should check the date of publication. Blogs are great sources of up to date information, but a blog post from 2010 won’t necessarily help you in 2016. With bloggers often sharing older posts on Twitter as a way to maintain a presence, we’ve all found ourselves reading something out of date and not realizing it until we checked when it was published.
I once took a recommendation from a blogger I trust only to find that it had not been updated in a while, and the restaurant, which had since changed hands, was fairly disappointing. Check those time stamps!
But bloggers aren’t perfect. Some accept freebies while others write for cash. Even though there are disclosure laws in the US requiring bloggers to say if something was sponsored, many don’t, and those in Europe or beyond don’t have similar laws. It’s always a leap of faith, even if a modest one.
Review sites and TripAdvisor
On review sites like TripAdvisor, things get more difficult. Bloggers can develop a relationship with readers over time, but TripAdvisor is like the drive-through of travel information. And much like the meat in a fast food restaurant, its contents are questionable. Fake or paid reviews are just some of the issues we have to deal with on TripAdvisor, and there is never really a way to know if the information is honest or not. There’s plenty more on that here.
However, if you want to check a hotel against a blogger or journalist’s review, there can be some useful information within individual reviews, so forget the rankings. Traditional word of mouth advice, one of the most important for tourists, usually comes from a person we know. Immediately we can judge whether or not to trust it, depending on our relationship with the person. Online, we lack the luxury of knowing the person on the other side. But if you think you can trust that it’s a regular Joe writing, it helps to know what to look in order to judge the review as accurately as possible.
Tourists say they look for indicators as to the nationality, age, and travel experiences of the person reviewing. By clicking their profile, we can have basic information that at least explains why the person is criticizing the hotel or restaurant. Different cultures have different expectations, and even within the US, users will discriminate based on location. One woman from New York explained in her interview:
“On Yelp they say where people are from, so if they are from the area or another similar big city, I’d be more likely to read and trust that individual comment than someone who is complaining from Missouri.”
It may sound elitist, and many users recognize this, but they want to be able to trust the voices speaking at them. To that end, they also look at the writing quality in an individual review. Most of those interviewed immediately dismiss reviews with poor English or slang writing. Another woman summed it up:
“If you can’t spell or punctuate properly it makes me think you are less educated and I shouldn’t take your advice – depending on the subject.”
A third element to look for is how active the person is on TripAdvisor or Yelp. Some travelers preferred those who only had a few reviews, imagining that these people we really moved by a certain experience to write about it. Other travelers like to see many reviews, indicating someone with much experience. Both arguments have validity, and it’s up to you to make the call, but noting their other activity on the site could help make a judgement call for you.
Then again, this could all be for naught if it’s a fake review in the first place. Ultimately there’s no way to know, but with millions of reviews, they can’t all be fake.
Journalists and professional media
Beyond blogs and TripAdvisor, good old print sources remain popular, from guides to travels magazines. Professionally produced and edited, these sources instill trust in tourists just by having names like Condé Nast or Fodor’s. Does that mean they are perfect? Not at all, and travelers still systematically crosscheck every source with others. Some unscrupulous journalists accept freebies and are paid for articles by companies that might as well be advertising content. Travelers know that the brand confidence isn’t an ultimate reason to trust a publication. One woman said:
“The New York Times has its own prestige. Maybe I’m naive, but I just assume what they say has some authority.”
Still, the press has clout, and writers who are actually getting paid for their work and submit to an editorial process are more accountable than most writers online.
As pay rates continue to fall, however, lots of new, younger, untrained writers are taking writing jobs once belonging to professional journalists. Even if most tourists report not looking into the identity of the journalist writing, it may be worthwhile to take a moment and check on Twitter to see who is writing and if you think they can really be trusted.
Caveat emptor is part of the adventure
These are just a few results from my research that might help you plan your next trip. In the end, the goal is to find information that speaks to you and, more importantly, that has clear and transparent origins. Know where it’s coming from and decide whether to use it, check it with other sources, and reduce doubt as much as possible.
All of these travel information sites are helping to build trust with you, to empower you to make the right decision, and to make you feel good about these choices. No one site can completely eliminate any doubt though, and travelers are forced to verify sometimes using more than 40 websites just to feel comfortable with their decisions. Never has it been so easy to be armed with so much information and yet still feel so poorly informed.
The process isn’t perfect, but travel isn’t meant to be either, and sometimes the bumps in the road are the most exciting part.
Bryan Pirolli is a travel journalist and professor at the Sorbonne University. This article is based on his PhD dissertation “Pluralité et extension du journalisme de voyage : nouveaux acteurs, nouvelles pratiques, nouvelles attentes,” defended in December 2015 at the Sorbonne Nouvelle. He’ll be teaching the nuts and bolts of good travel writing at the Secrets of Paris Travel Writing Workshops.