The online review paradox

Have you ever wondered why the top-rated TripAdvisor restaurants in a city are often quite mediocre? They’re are not bad, but they are not the best either.

In general, I have faith in objective, non-anonymous online reviews. They have helped bring trust in a world where most buyers and sellers are strangers. And yet, when it comes to tourist experiences – both with food as well as with “things to do” in a city, I find that the top-rated spots online don’t usually deliver the goods. A recent experience I had illustrates this problem.

I am a pizza snob, and on a recent trip to Edinburgh, I wanted to taste the best pizza in town. Several online reviews pointed me to a restaurant in the center of the city, whereas my local host recommended one that was quite far out. I trusted my host more and took a bus to the pizzeria, only to arrive at 1:30 PM and find out that they weren’t taking orders because they shut at 2 PM. They followed strict timings, and their menu had hardly any choice.

I then took a bus back to the highly recommended restaurant near the city’s center. The restaurant was bustling, had good service and a nice ambiance. Their wide-ranging menu included pizzas, pastas, and several other eats. They were also willing to add or remove toppings on pizzas we ordered. But when I bit into their slice, I noticed how it tasted of familiar mediocrity. Nothing differentiated it from a pie of a popular pizzeria from anywhere else.

Why does this happen? Why do top-rated restaurants online often turn out to be a let-down? In a few cases, this is due to restaurants running an organized scam. But with the rest, a few other factors come into play.

Convenience – Tourists often seek convenience: proximity to the city-center, a menu with plenty of options, flexible timings, custom ingredients and so on. Any chef will tell you how making the best food is inconvenient. With pizzas, the base makes all the difference. The dough needs to be cold fermented over three to five days with a limited amount of yeast – not exactly convenient for a restaurant that caters to an unpredictable tourist crowd. And no. A good chef not let you substitute artichokes with mushrooms despite having 15 items or fewer on the menu.

Risk aversion – A tourist’s time is valuable and she is risk averse. A bad experience at a restaurant can do more to hurt her trip than an average experience. The best restaurants often have limited items on their menu and do not serve the average crowd – they seek out people who have acquired a specific taste. When a tourist visits such a restaurant, with its limited timings and their reluctance to replace artichokes with mushrooms, a few of them are likely to have bad experiences and leave 1-star reviews.

The internet – The online world has blurred the boundaries between the average and the best. In a simpler world, one didn’t really take restaurant recommendations from that tourist from Rome, who visited Berlin once and found a certain Vietnamese restaurant near the city center to serve “the best Pho in town”. Besides, most online reviews are democratic. They average out everybody’s vote equally. But in certain cases, this can be the perfect recipe for mediocrity – experiences that please everybody and end up delighting nobody.

Of course, this phenomenon applies not just to restaurants, but also for the best things to do in a city and so on. To some measure, this pertains to most online reviews, which are mostly left by large masses of average customers.

In effect, if you’re looking to satisfice, if you’re looking for good-enough choice with a small risk of downside, use online reviews. As tourists, most of us understandably wish to do this, and that is why TripAdvisor is so popular.

But if you’re looking for a specific kind of experience, think about the online review paradox.

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