First of all, before you read the reviews, make sure the cottage you’re considering is a cottage you’re quite happy to stay in before reading the reviews. Does it fit your criteria? Imagine yourself and your family or friends relaxing in the photos etc.

Handwritten guest reviews from the Shankend Cottage Visitors Book

An example of a way to present guest reviews in a way to be trusted. Top marks to Shankend Cottage, Scotland

Still like the look of the property? OK, let’s check the reviews. These come in two type: reviews or testimonials listed on a property's website or advert, and reviews posted on independent review sites.

Reviews featured on a property’s own website.

You can pretty much guarantee that these will be positive. Occasionally some owners post comments which clearly flag up the unsuitability of the property for particular types of customers, e.g. a comment on an unfenced pond might be there deliberately to deter bookers with young children in tow.

Assuming though, that the reviews uniformly praise the property, here are four things to check.

1. Are they attributable?

OK, don’t expect contact details, but a name and town, such as ‘The Thomas family, Chesterfield’, means that, unless the owner is happy to break the Trades Description Act (which is rare!), then the review is likely to be genuine and appears with that person’s knowledge. So if there are lots of these, then that’s a good sign.

Attributable testimonials for Devon Beach Court in Woolacombe

Dated and attributable reviews from Devon Beach Court in Woolacombe.

2. Are reviews dated?

The older a review, the less likely it is to be relevant. You don’t know if the property changed hands and the new owners are failing to maintain the standards of the previous owners because they are using very old testimonials. We had an overseas villa that we sold in 2008, but even now in 2013 none of the reviews on the site have been updated. Treat undated reviews with a degree of suspicion – they could be ancient; true at the time but completely misleading if applied to the property as it is today.

3. If dated, how recent are the reviews?

Smart owners who look after their cottages and guests will have a wealth of good reviews each year which they regularly upload. They don’t need age-old reviews. Such owners know that you want to know just how good your cottage is right now. If reviews are excellent but more than a couple of years old, treat with a measure of caution. It means that either nobody has had anything good to say about the site lately or that owners can’t be bothered to update their site. If the latter is the case – what else can’t they be bothered to do about the property or managing your booking?

4. Is there variation in style between the different reviews?

A harder one to check, but if there is a uniformity in the style of writing, use of language, there’s a chance, impossible to prove, that the reviews all stem from the same hand. Of course no one will ever admit to writing all his or her own reviews, but sadly it does happen. Uniformity of language, style or structure suggests that this might just be the case. Diversity suggests reviews are genuine.

Reviews on independent travel websites

Independent reviews are great. Sadly, and generally through no fault of the site itself, they can be open to abuse. A recent poll, for example, found that 61% of people no longer fully trusted reviews on Trip Advisor. If you want an alternative we can recommend another Cottage Review site. It's not as well known as Trip Adviser, but there is a large and rather good holiday cottage review site with honest, verifiable reviews called My Cottage Holiday. Like other sites it allows people to post a review of a property on such sites for others to read. Reviews are checked for bad or abusive language and then published. Over time, what tends to happen is that owners getting more than their fair share of bad reviews tend to disapper from the site (hardly surprising) leaving those that are more likely to pick up positive reviews. You can still find the occasional scathing corker though!

The trouble is that people use these sites to post reviews that are simply not true. Sometimes the intention is to create a portfolio of glowing reviews written by those with a vested interest in the property concerned. Sometimes the review is a malicious tract written by a competitor hoping to undermine local competition, or by someone attempting to blackmail an owner into giving them a refund to stop them posting a damning but wholly fictitious review of their property. The problem is, that it is hard to separate truth from fiction. But, here are four more tips to help you to do just that.

1. Attribution?

As with the first section – a review carries greater weight if it is attributable, - Personally, I distrust all anonymous reviews, good or bad!

2. From what position is the reviewer writing?

Have they actually stayed at the property? Look for evidence of this, especially if the nature of the review means they will have to have stayed there to experience whatever it is they are writing about. Check the terms of the site to see if this is a compulsory requirement. Ideally, a review should display the date a person stayed at the property.

3. Aged complaints?

If the review is an old one, then depending on the content of the review, there’s a good chance that the owner will have long since addressed what they condemned. You can always call the owner to check!

4. What is the ratio between good and bad?

What if you encounter a damming review amidst a sea of praise? Before you strike the property off your shortlist, remember, nobody is perfect – just occasionally things go wrong and even the best and most caring of owners can find themselves bearing the brunt of someone’s frustration. So, if there’s just one or two negative reviews amongst a sea of praise – consider what they are saying and whether sufficient time has passed to address the criticisms expressed, but take into account the fact that almost every other guest appears to have had quite the opposite experience. This approach helps to nullify postings from those trying to blackmail owners or attack their competitors.

5.Time of Year

An inteeresting phenomenon: By August a popular holiday cottage may have been so full from Easter onwards that the owner will have been unable to do much more than cleaning and light maintenance. While this shouldn't be an issue, it does mean that reviews in late summer tend to be harsher than those earlier in the year, for xample if that farmhouse pine table as coffee-cup rings on it, a lack of matching wine glasses or marks and scratches on walls and paintwork - guests paying peak rates may slip in the occasional critical remark. Especially if reviews earlier in the year are good, these things will more than likely be addressed in the autumn as soon as the owner has space between bookings to do the work required. Critical remarks relating to the condition of a cottage in the spring should perhaps be taken a little more seriously!

Are there owner replies?

Always worth reading. If nothing else it’ll give you an insight into the personality of the owner. A well thought through and unemotional response, sometimes even conceding a point, is likely to mean that the owner is indeed caring and committed. An emotional rant in response to a poor review suggests that the review itself may contain more than a grain of truth.

Use these guidelines which will help you to determine the likely validity of the reviews. Do take notice of feedback, but don't dismiss a property simply because it has had one bad review spoiling an otherwise unblemished track record. It usually means the owner is likely to be honest and will probably have addressed the complaint - especially if subsequent reviews don't mention the problem. You can always call to ask.