You find yourself shopping for a restaurant to eat at, a hotel to sleep at, or a destination to travel to, so what do you do? If you’re like me or millions of other internet users you may turn to online review sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, and others. Why wouldn’t you? They have leveraged the “power of social media” to empower consumers (by giving them a voice) and enable them to find the best places around. Or do they?

This weekend a friend of mine came into town to visit. On Saturday night I decided that we’d go grab sushi. Unfortunately my favorite sushi spots all had waits of an hour or more. So I decided to turn to Yelp to see what other options were nearby. As I browsed through Yelp I found a sushi spot that had a whopping 4.5 stars, something that’s an impressive feat for the supposedly discerning Yelp crowd.

Rather than sharing the entire experience, which you can read on the sushi restaurant’s Yelp page, I figured I’d share a photo of one roll that we ordered:

Simply put, I can guarantee you that Jiro (of “Jiro Dreams Of Sushi”) would laugh at the food they delivered. Simply put, the fish wasn’t fresh and that’s pretty much all that matters in the world of sushi. Keep in mind, it wasn’t just limited to that one roll that I’ve decided to picture here. So what went wrong? And why are experiences like this not that rare?

History Bias

New restaurants, hotels, and other retail locations are likely to have a volatile rating when they first start. That was the case with the sushi place we went to this past weekend. Apparently the restaurant had been around for less than a month and people in the neighborhood rushed on to Yelp to express their excitement about having a new sushi spot nearby. The result was a bunch of five star reviews.

Differing Expectations Of Service

Another problem with online review sites is that each individual has a different expectation of service. If you turn to a hotel review site, for example, there are many people who simply want a place where they can safely let their kids run around while they grab drinks. It’s not like this is unacceptable behavior (at least to them!), but a place where kids are running around all the time is not my idea of a good time.

However imagine when you show up to a high priced hotel only to find out that you have loud kids and drunk parents roaming around (yes, it’s a first world problem). The problem here is that a childless couple looking for rest, relaxation, and a little indulgence probably won’t find the same spot to be appealing. Yes, some of the online review sites provide options like “good for kids” or “good for couples”, but can people really be boxed into one a few categories?

I don’t think so.

Polarizing Reviews

Another problem with online review sites is that most people give 1 or 5 stars. They either love the place or hate it. Having an average experience doesn’t typically elicit a response from most consumers. The result is that you don’t actually get a comprehensive understanding of what you should expect when you go to that restaurant, hotel, or other vendor.

Fake Reviews

Whether it’s friends of the owners or competitors, local businesses strive to keep high ratings. That’s because a high rating on Yelp can single-handedly ensure a continuous flow of customers coming through the door. So what happens when someone writes a negative review? The owner calls up their friend (or pays someone else) to right a glowing review. Anybody can hire someone to write reviews.

In fact, writing reviews has become a standard service provided by many online communications firms. When you don’t know which review is real and which is fake, you are forced to take all reviews with a grain of salt.

Varying Experiences Within Same Vendor

Simply put, two people at the same hotel or restaurant could have vastly different experiences. That’s because some waiters and waitresses strive to provide incredible service, while others could care less. Same with hotel concierges. It’s incredibly challenging to provide customers with a consistent experience every time. The result is inconsistent experiences and inconsistent reviews.

Ownership Changes

The previous owners could have been incredible. However they ended up selling the business to retire or have some extra cash and a new management that isn’t as great takes over. The result is a varied experience that was most likely unaccounted for on the online review site.

Is It The Reviews Or Service In General?

One conclusion I’ve come to after doing a decent amount of travel over the past few years is that excellent service is rare. Let’s be honest, excellence in general is unique. The result is that the average expectations of users of most online review sites is exactly that, average. If you want excellent service you may need to simply turn to Michelin, Zagat, and other more reliable review sources that aren’t dependent on the crowd.

While the crowd can help provide some guidance, they most likely won’t match your expectations. If you know that an online review site is correct only 90 percent of time, why would you use it, knowing that 10 percent of the time you are going to have a bad experience? The obvious answer is that 90 percent accurate is better than 50 percent (the odds you’ll walk into a great restaurant or vendor if chosen at random).

Perhaps I’m simply identifying the weaknesses of online review systems and there’s nothing that can be done to fix them. What do you think though? Is there any way crowd-powered review sites can provide a better experience?