On TripAdvisor, Koh Samui's hotels and attractions are ranked and reviewed by tens of thousands of travellers each year. Whether you're looking for the lowdown on luxury accommodation or planning an off-the-beaten track itinerary for you and your backpack, the site promises to give you the scoop from a whole community of online reviewers who have been there and done that. It's a brilliant concept, but can you really trust what you're reading?
With any review site, there's potential for gaming the system. Those with a stake in the tourism trade are wiseing up to the impact that social media can have on their business, and there's always the possibility that some of those glowing five star write ups aren't as genuine as they appear. But how can you tell?
Fake reviews are fought against everyday with human moderators checking content but some do slip through the cracks. And it's not just the positive reviews that you might want to take with a pinch of salt. Negative reviews range from the objective to the outright venomous - and there's no way to know the true motivation of the one-star reviewer who makes it clear they much prefer the restaurant up the road.
The TripAdvisor Koh Samui travel page is a popular starting point for would-be visitors to the island, seeking the genuine opinions of real travellers instead of tour operators' glossy photographs and slick sales pitch. However, even reviewers with the best of intentions can sometimes leave misleading feedback.
Contributors can be quick to pass judgement that a hotel is 'not a four star', but what they often mean is that the hotel isn't as plush as they expected - and not necessarily that the establishment is lacking in the facilities that earned it its official star rating.
It would be dull if we all liked the same things, but when it comes to reviews it's worth remembering the old adage different strokes for different folks. A friend's verdict on a hotel you're considering might throw a little extra light on the tour provider's write-up, but does that mean that you can trust the opinion of a total stranger on TripAdvisor?
Koh Samui offers travellers a huge array of dining options, from stalls serving authentic street food to restaurants specialising in Western cuisine. You might be seeking the best Kaeng Phed Ped Yang on the island, but the review you're reading might be written by a less adventurous soul who is really more at home with shepherd's pie - and you've no way of knowing.
At the same time, it can be difficult for hoteliers and restaurateurs to encourage genuine feedback. Some offer prize draws or special discounts for customers willing to share their experience online, but customers in this scenario can feel obliged to leave a rose-tinted write-up.
TripAdvisor's filters are designed to root out attempts to game the system, but this carries the risk of penalties for hotel guests leaving feedback from the establishment's own IP address, or for multiple restaurant reviews from the same IP address.
So should you completely disregard TripAdvisor? Koh Samui is your dream destination, and you want to make sure your visit will be the holiday of a lifetime. So how can you get the real scoop without being misled by phony or inaccurate reviews?
First, don't just rely on star ratings. Read the full reviews, and look for details in the reviews. Start with the negative and see what common comments pop up. Don't take vague or generalised comments at face value - a trustworthy review should be specific enough to convince you the reviewer is genuine, and knows what they're talking about.
From our experience in operating snorkelling tours, the weather played the deciding role in a review. We used to receive great reviews when the weather was nice as it made every body happy - it didn't matter if the food wasn't hot, or the boat broke down and there was a delay, great weather = happy people! And the opposite was true. When the seas were choppy: the speed boat crossing over was uncomfortable (unsafe & dangerous even!); the water wasn't clear so you couldn't see all the fish; it was raining! Now we'd loved to have been able to control the weather but we couldn't, and we wouldn't have ever taken the boats out if it was unsafe - we value our lives too! So just look out for those details in the reviews and keep an open mind.
Second, check out the reviewers' usernames. Does the hotel you're checking out have a lot of reviews by one-time contributors? Focus on feedback left by members with a believable pattern of reviews - review history adds to the credibility of the reviewer.
If you're browsing for restaurants, check out whether the author has also written reviews of other restaurants in the area. Do they sound like they know about good food, and not just what they like? Again, you're looking for specific comments about what they ordered.
Finally, don't limit your pre-travel research to TripAdvisor. Koh Samui attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from all corners of the globe, and you'll find their invaluable insights in travel guides, newspaper travel supplements and in blogs like this one.