By Joe Brancatelli
March 10, 2010 -- The last time anyone in the lodging industry stopped to count, there were around 50,000 hotels and nearly 5 million guestrooms in the United States. I've never even seen a "reliable" guesstimate about the total number of hotels and rooms worldwide.

How many of the world's hotels and rooms have you stayed in? More to the point, how many establishments has your friendly neighborhood talking-head business-travel expert stayed in?

I can't answer for you, but I can answer for me: Not nearly enough. At least not enough to suggest with any journalistic credibility that I know every desirable place—or even a desirable place—in every city, town, village, suburban office park, or airport on the planet.

So of course I consult user-generated review sites such as Trip Advisor and its many competitors for opinions on what hotels to visit and which to avoid. And it goes without saying that I urge you to do the same whenever you need guidance about lodging in an unfamiliar place or are in search of a new experience.

What is peculiar about those two statements is the vehemence with which many who claim to be professional travel experts would disagree. They are shocked—shocked!—to find that you'd listen to a gaggle of real people instead of hanging on their every pronouncement as if it is received wisdom from the hotel heavens.

"The whole emphasis on user-generated content is foolish," thunders Arthur Frommer, whose 1957 guidebook, Europe on $5 a Day, sparked the postwar middle-class travel movement. "I was the first person to use it [back in the 1960s]. Then we realized it was being massively manipulated."

"There has to be a better way to get authentic review about hotels," complains Chris Elliott, the syndicated travel columnist and radio host, who has done good work exposing some of the inherent flaws of Trip Advisor and its ilk.

The antipathy of professional travel journalists toward user-generated review sites is understandable, I guess. Nobody (including yours truly) likes someone doing for free what they get paid to do. Some, like Elliott, legitimately fret about the shortcoming of user-generated reviews, but forget that so-called pros have admitted to faking entire guidebooks. Others, like Frommer, simply can't accept that you might actually have your own ideas about how to travel and how much to spend.

A lot of the antagonism is also predictable. The same attacks were aimed at the Zagat Survey of restaurant diners when it first became popular in New York foodie circles in the early 1980s. As late as 1986, when I helped introduce Zagat's New York guide to business travelers nationwide via a story in Frequent Flyer magazine, there was a torrent of criticism from professional food writers who thought Tim and Nina Zagat would destroy "legitimate" restaurant criticism.

Twenty-five years later, smart business travelers know that sharing information is an exceedingly valuable exercise, and the Internet is an irreplaceable tool for doing it. As I've pecked around sites like Trip Advisor, Hotel Shark, Boo.com, Venere.com, and even user-generated commentary on the Web presence of the printed Fodor's guidebooks, I've developed a few rules of the reviewing road that I think would be useful to heed.

Aim for the Sweet Spot
Unlike Zagat's printed guides, which pasteurize and homogenize user reviews before we read them, user-generated Internet sites mostly post unfettered and unedited commentary from all comers. That means you need to separate out the extremes on your own. Ignore posts that can find no fault with a hotel and disregard those that can find no good. Somewhere in the middle is the generic truth about the quality of a hotel. And the more travelers who say the same thing about a property, the greater the chance that it is an accurate reflection of the state of affairs at a particular hotel.

Know Your Own Predilections
It doesn't matter how positive the user reviews of a hotel are: If it's not your style of lodging to begin with, you're not going to like it. So forget about the raves thrown at a roadside motel because it is "the best value for the money" if you're interested only in luxury accommodations. If you don't like chains, you're probably not going to like the Marriott in Sheboygan or the Hilton in Oshkosh no matter how much reviewers like them. I'm not a fan of bed-and-breakfast inns, for example, so I couldn't care less that reviewers find a place "intimate" or the owners "charming." B&Bs, good or bad, don't work for me, and no reviews will change that.

Keep the Commentary in Context
Generally speaking, amateur reviewers are prisoners of what they know. That's the primary difference between them and professional journalists who do (or at least should do) independent research on a wide range of topics before writing a review. So that means you'll see a lot of commentary on user-generated sites condemning the skimpy continental breakfasts offered at hotels in Italy or the high price of optional services at luxury resorts or the lack of English-speaking help at small properties in Japan. If the pros don't know everything, don't expect that the amateurs will, so keep the ill-informed carping about social and cultural realities in the proper context.

Find Sites That Work for You
Free hotel advice is now, well, freely available on dozens of Web sites. The din of conflicting views is cacophonous. So find the sites that work best for you. Oyster.com, which says its reviews are done by professional journalists, is heavy on the photos. If you need to see the bathroom of a representative room or panoramas of the hotel lobby, Oyster is for you. Venere.com is the best venue for reviews of international properties—and user reviews from a more global clientele. IgoUgo.com is best used by leisure travelers. And Raveable.com links you to reviews from many different sites.

Don't Ignore Trusted Advisers
The growth of user-generated review sites shouldn't make you abandon your other trusted advisers. If a friend has always given you reliable hotel tips, why would you stop listening to them? If a guidebook or travel writer has offered you valuable lodging advice in the past, why ignore them now? The best use of user-generated sites is as an adjunct to the information sources you already trust, not as a replacement for all other opinions.

A final thought about user-generated reviews: Be aware that websites, like their print compatriots, use reviews as "content." They sell advertising near the reviews, and most sites also profit if you use them to book a hotel room or airline ticket. The largest, Barry Diller's publicly traded Expedia, has turned Web reviews and related content into a substantial business. Besides the travel-booking engines Expedia, Hotwire.com, and Hotels.com, Diller's operation owns TripAdvisor.com and Venere.com; CruiseCritic.com, a site that offers cruise reviews; SeatGuru.com, which offers airline seating charts; and several other sites that offer travel advice and commentary.

The Fine Print…
Considering that there are tens of millions of user-generated reviews on the Web, the instances of outright fraud—hoteliers planting good reviews about themselves or spiking sites with bad reviews of their competitors—are remarkably few and far between. But one worrisome trend is the effort of hotelkeepers to influence users to post positive commentary. Consultants like Daniel Edward Craig have even written about tactics that help hoteliers increase their positive reviews. Still, influencing the amateur influencers is harder than reaching the relatively small community of "professional" reviewers, who tend to move in a pack and jump on the same stories based on what they can sell to editors, who are also pack thinkers. (Excepting yours truly and the editors at Portfolio.com, of course.)
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2010 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.