When star ratings are a bane

From taxi rides to hotel stays, almost every experience these days is subject to a star rating

In December last year, my family and I stayed three nights at Maria's house in south-west England.

The airy two-bedroom unit was converted from a stable and sits at the back of a bigger house she lives in with her family.

We used her towels and slept on her beds, cooked in her kitchen and ate the cookies she'd baked and left for us in a jar.

Before our stay, we had never met Maria.

During those three days, we saw her for only a few fleeting minutes (she was late for a school run and then left on a trip).

But it didn't matter that she wasn't around because her stylishly decorated house had everything we needed.

It was our first time using Airbnb and Maria was our host.

For those who don't know, Airbnb is a website where you can rent a house or room from a stranger to stay in when you travel.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

You can also be a host, renting out your home to tourists.

In Singapore, owners of HDB flats can't sublet their homes for short-term stays. The authorities are reviewing the rules for private homes, which can be rented out, but must be for at least six months. Meanwhile, Singapore listings are available on Airbnb.

My first experience with Airbnb was good.

Registration was fairly painless and searching for places to stay in was fun.

I love peering into other people's homes and flipping through photos of the interiors. The Airbnb site is well-designed with beautiful visuals that get you in the mood to travel.

The key when booking is to check the ratings and reviews of others who have stayed at the house before.

There is an overall rating out of five stars. There are also individual ratings for things such as accuracy of the home's description, communication with the host, cleanliness, location, the check-in process and value for money.

Maria's house scored five out of five stars in every category.

There were more than 50 reviews. All of them spoke glowingly about how beautiful and clean the house was and the little touches that made it so welcoming (flowers in every room, handmade lavender soap, milk in the fridge and cookbooks in the kitchen).

I was sold.

After our stay, we were encouraged to rate and review the house and host.

We gave five stars in every category, of course.

Interestingly, Maria had to leave a review about us and we could read her review only after submitting ours. I was curious and a little apprehensive.

Luckily, we passed her test. She said we were good guests who left her home clean and tidy, adding that "I would have no hesitation in recommending them".

Her review of us is public on the site. It mattered that we got a good one as it might determine whether we get accepted as guests next time we want to rent another place.

Renting homes when travelling isn't a new phenomenon, of course. We have done it in Japan and Britain.

What was different about Airbnb was the experience.

Its website looks good and has a cool user interface. Unlike other rental sites I'd used, reviews and ratings feature prominently and, as mentioned, reviews are of not just the host but also the guest.

Using Airbnb brought home to me just how much ratings have become a part of life today.

It used to be just movies, television shows, restaurants and maybe household appliances that were ranked by a five-star system.

Now, with technology and the Internet, everything from taxi rides to hotel stays, universities to doctors and childcare centres are openly rated, often with detailed reviews.

I must say I'm easily swayed by stars.

I never go to a movie, restaurant or hotel without first reading up on them online. Often, I base my choice on the number of stars they have received.

On the plus side, star ratings celebrate the power of the consumer. Everyone can make public what he likes and doesn't, and everyone's opinion gets equal billing.

Ratings help sift out the excellent from the terrible. They introduce you to places and services you might not have heard about, serve as a warning on what to avoid and as a recommendation on what to try. After all, so many people can't be wrong.

Or can they?

One big problem with ratings is that they reduce an entire experience to a star.

It's so easy to be petty and make quick judgments online without facing any consequences, but to the businesses and people on the receiving end of an unfair review, it can be damaging.

Ratings also don't compare like for like. On Airbnb, a beachfront villa in the Bahamas might get five stars, as might a tiny flat in Oxford Street in London. They are vastly different properties yet are rated on the same scale.

Similarly, on the TripAdvisor review site for travellers, a roadside satay stall in Penang might get five stars, but so might a fine-dining restaurant in New York.

A case in point: On TripAdvisor's Singapore site, Maxwell Food Centre gets four stars. So does The Line restaurant at Shangri-La Hotel.

There's also the matter of the number of reviews.

A restaurant with only three reviews, each giving it five stars, will have a five-star rating. But another which has 200 reviews, of which 80 are five stars and 120 are four, will probably get four stars overall. People who don't scrutinise the ratings might think the first restaurant is the superior one when it need not be so.

Fake reviews are not uncommon as people sabotage business rivals with negative reviews or burnish their own reputation with positive ones.

Another issue: Users have to figure out whether they share the same expectations as the people who contributed to the rating.

Am I so sure that I have the same taste in hotel rooms as a housewife from Perth and a businessman from India, such that I should rely on their opinions?

Instead of helping you to decide more quickly, ratings can in fact end up making you more confused, which was what happened to me recently.

My family decided to spend Chinese New Year in Ubud in Bali. I booked the airline tickets early, then got down to researching hotels and restaurants.

The hotel wasn't difficult because I knew I wanted to stay at one run by a well-known Singaporean brand. Luckily, its TripAdvisor rating is five stars.

But where to eat proved to be a headache.

There are so many Ubud restaurants rated five stars on TripAdvisor.

But each of these five-star restaurants had its share of one- (terrible), two- (poor) and three-star (average) ratings. Some of the comments under these were so bad, they eclipsed the praise I read in the four- and five-star reviews.

I literally spent weeks deciding on the four restaurants we finally visited.

One definitely lived up to the hype, two more or less did, while the fourth was a let-down.

Reviewers had described the food as "true haute cuisine" and "extraordinary", but I was underwhelmed. For one thing, all the dishes were lukewarm.

The biggest issue I have with the proliferation of ratings is that while it has made me a more prepared traveller, it has also made travelling a little less fun.

Because I have read the reviews and studied the travellers' photos, I know what to expect.

The mix of anticipation, joy and even disappointment of a totally virgin experience unfolding before me is no longer there.

Reviews alert me to flaws which I might otherwise have not noticed, which is a dampener.

They make me less adventurous too. If a place doesn't boast a cluster of stars, I don't give it a chance when, who knows, I might have liked it if I'd tried it.

Still, it is unlikely that I will let go of my reliance on ratings.

But while I remain guided by the stars, I should not be so star-struck that I can't think and decide some things for myself.

•Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter @STsumikotan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 14, 2016, with the headline 'Reach for the stars'. Print Edition | Subscribe