A couple of years ago I discovered what I thought would be the loneliest beach in Costa Rica. I decided I had to go there and so began an online search for accommodations. Being a lonely beach, it did not have many hotels associated with it. I used such terms as “hotels near Playa _____,” “accommodations, Playa _____,” “places to stay by Playa ____ that are reasonable and not too noisy, smoking is okay.” That sort of thing.
TripAdvisor was most efficient in pushing itself to the top of the returns. The problem was that it didn’t help much. There were listings, but they didn’t give the kind of information I was looking for. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for but I knew I would know it when I saw it. There were maps and phone numbers, hours and prices. All the logistical information that you’d need. But what I really wanted to know was what these various places would be like. Would a person like me like them? I’m going to paradise, after all, and needed to be sure the place I stayed at was worthy of paradise. It couldn’t be just some construct that thinks a lot of itself because it’s located at the end of the world and can supply a picture postcard sunset. I didn’t want something that was trying to be what they think an American wants them to be. In other words, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to get stuck at Club Med.
The thing about sites like TripAdvisor is that they’re full of reviews from people “just like you and me.” Sounds like that should work, right? Wrong. There are four or five different types of people just like you and me and their reviews are all at cross purposes. You cannot tell what any place is like from reading them. I try to use clues. People that misspell words are morons and their reviews can be discounted. Unfortunately I’ve come across reviews of places that I know and I agree with some of them even if they are full of bad grammar and tyops. Reviewers that are full of vitriol are just angry people in general and want to spread misery far and wide. I don’t listen to them. I also discount extremes in either direction—five stars as well as one star. Nothing is that bad or that good. Which leaves the two to four star reviews spelled well and grammatically correct by people without a chip on their shoulder. There’s still no consensus among them. Their truths all cancel each other out.
The problem is the Internet is a democracy; we all get a voice. I’m not sure we all deserve a voice. How did we acquire expertise in accommodations? Are we all world travelers? Some world travelers are not adventurous. They’ve been all over with tours but rarely venture beyond the bus or recommended recommendations. And some people are stupidly fussy. Maybe their hotel doesn’t have air conditioning. The trip’s a wash for them. Americans are especially egregious with wanting to get away from it all only if it all comes with you.
Restaurant reviews are the worst. Most people just make generalizations: “The food sucked.” Or “This was the best place ever.” If a reviewer gives specifics at all, it’s still not helpful: “I had a delicious pasta salad. And the crackers were free.”
What are you supposed to do with that? I mean, what kind of crackers?
How do you know for sure that the reviewers are just like you or me? How many pasta salads have they had in their life? Do they know pasta from paste? What if they’re the type of person that would eat Franco American right out of the can? You just don’t know.
The lay reviewer is not to be trusted. And yet Google meticulously returns TripAdvisor and Yelp pages when I’m doing a search for food or hotels. I cannot use such services. I need a list of addresses, that’s all. Skip the ads, skip the reviews. Just a yellow pages would be fine.
When a friend of mine, a restaurant owner, complained to me about Yelp reviews, I responded with, “nobody pays attention to those. They’re dumb.”
How wrong I was, she asserted. They make a difference. They’d been getting bad reviews and it had hurt their business.
I was flummoxed. Her restaurant, Bistro 614 in West Reading, is one of my favorite places to eat. I don’t eat there often; it’s expensive. But whenever I have something to celebrate I go there. I’ve never had a bad meal there. Sometimes when we’re out for other reasons we’ll stop by for dessert and coffee. My friend makes the desserts herself and they’re all wonderful in a way that only house made desserts can be. I was surprised that the Bistro would get so many bad reviews that it would make a difference in their business.
“And Yelp told us the bad reviews would go away if we paid,” my friend said.
That stopped me cold. Now it wasn’t just personal, now it was frightening. “You’re kidding,” I said. They’re extorting money from you?”
“They want us to buy an ad.”
What a letdown. The Internet. Supposed to be information by the people for the people. Turns out to be just more of the same ol’ entity controlled by the powers that be like in the past. Those three networks supported by advertising back in the 60s and 70s? Remember that? Cable was supposed to bring us freedom of information. When cable faltered, the Internet was supposed to pick up the slack. Now we weren’t just getting more choices, now we were making the content ourselves with our comments and blog posts. We had the means of production finally. But our voices are manipulated by entities such as Yelp and Google with their proprietary search engine that gives returns based on what? Who knows, but take my advice and pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. It’s too heartbreaking.
So the next day I did a Google search: “Yelp, shake down.” Sure enough stories of class action suits against Yelp. Complaints. Allegations. To be fair Yelp did post explanations in a few forums: “I work at Yelp and I assure you we have never been pressured to ask for money to remove or hide bad reviews.” “Yelp was taken to court but all charges dropped.” Stuff along those lines. Still, if it smells like a rat, sounds like…
My friend said she was pressured to buy an ad or send money ($300 she says). Maybe that was before and not now. Could that have been a few years ago when Yelp was in trouble? I didn’t ask; I was so surprised that something like this was going on, I could do nothing but ponder. Maybe Yelp has cleaned up their act and they are now being honest with their reviews. Dunno about that but I do know that Bistro 614’s reviews are not in order by date and one particularly scathing post keeps showing up close to the top. Also, a friend of mine told me he reviewed Bistro 614 with a 4-star rating and the review was taken down. It was up there once; no longer. What happened to it?
The restaurant business is a tough business. Harder than making a living as a writer because there’s a lot of investment to make before you can even begin to earn money. Family run establishments (i.e. non-corporate, non-chain) are particularly tricky. They’re run on love and creativity and Americans aren’t always amenable to that sort of thing. We want cheap and recognizable. I feel for the family run place. But even so, if my friend was serving bad food, I’d say give ‘em hell. Give ‘em two stars. But I’ve never had a bad meal there. It makes me suspect foul play. And it makes me angry that someone who is trying to do something different in this land of Nod, is having a hard time.
To be fair, TripAdvisor does not seem to be doing the shakedown thing. Their reviews are in order by date and they seem to be more honestly displayed. And Googling “TripAdvisor, shakedown” does not return anything about complaints against them.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that I am disappointed with the promise of the Internet. It promises to set us all free. It promises to solve all problems, make available all information at free or on the cheap. It turns out to be just another tool for somebody somewhere to make money, not legitimately because they have a good product but because we can be manipulated into believing we really do want to go to Club Med. Am I making myself clear here? The mass culture has nothing to do with quality and everything to do with salesmanship. And the Internet delivers that so much more efficiently than those three networks ever did.
So how did I find my Costa Rican dream accommodation? I bought a Lonely Planet guide. Print version. It directed me to a little known resort at Playa_____ in the Nicoya Peninsula. The place was not too expensive, difficult to find, had a few amenities, small rooms, no a/c, and a restaurant that served Italian food. The result was the most fantastic vacation of my life. And the crackers were free.
Watch for the story “Haunted Beach” inspired by the best vacation of Sue Lange’s life to be published at Moon Hollow Press sometime in the future. Meantime, enjoy the trailer for “Princess Dancer” published in Book View Café’s BEYOND GRIMM now on sale!