A primer on how to decode those colorful—and sometimes confusing—patches found on the windows of restaurants and hotels.

By Jill Krasny
Updated: October 25, 2016
Courtesy of TripAdvisor

On a recent visit to the city of Perugia in the central Italian region of Umbria, I couldn’t help but notice several TripAdvisor stickers in the local trattoria windows. As my husband and I spent our warm summer days eating gelato and exploring the historic center, a “Travelers’ Choice Award” sticker caught our eye in a neighborhood pizza joint; another, pasted in front of a specialty food shop hawking prosciutto and cheese, read “Hall of Fame.” By the time we finished the best tiramisu of our lives at La Taverna, a dreamy candlelit restaurant with vaulted ceilings just steps from the city’s main drag, I knew I was onto something. There, in a tiny window facing the courtyard, were three different stickers: Certificate of Excellence, Hall of Fame, and Recommended on TripAdvisor. What did they mean?

With 350 million reviews and counting, TripAdvisor is more than a safe space to vent about yesterday’s terrible breakfast; it’s a powerful tool shaping millions of travelers’ decisions worldwide. And with registered users uploading more than 230 new pieces of content each minute, that trend shows no signs of stopping. (The site operates in 48 countries, in 28 languages.) In fact, a recent study commissioned by TripAdvisor found 82 percent of travelers are more likely to patronize a business with the company’s endorsement on display. Trouble is, most travelers don’t know what distinguishes one sticker from another—or why they’re there in the first place.   

What’s in a Sticker?

Around 2007, TripAdvisor launched its stickering program to help businesses increase walk-in traffic. The marketing tactic worked, and the stickers went digital in 2013, when the company released a widget that allows businesses to add a “virtual sticker” to their website and/or review page if they’ve met certain criteria. Any accommodation, attraction, restaurant, or destination may use the widget, and, not surprisingly, TripAdvisor encourages it. However, these awards and their stickers (which are dated by year) follow a distinctive hierarchy, though the company doesn’t define it that way. Here’s how.

Travelers’ Choice Awards

TripAdvisor began recognizing the best hotels in 2002, which evolved into the Travelers’ Choice Awards. Now given once a year, this sticker “indicates a property is among the best in the world,” says TripAdvisor spokesperson Kevin Carter. All recipients are determined using a proprietary algorithm; alas, there are no sticker judges. Travelers’ Choice Awards winners must maintain an overall “bubble rating,” as the site calls its summary of ratings, of at least four out of a possible five from users over a 12-month period. (A minimum number of reviews is also required, but TripAdvisor declined to share that number.) Recent reviews, traveler opinions, and a consistent track record of quality are all major factors, so this is the sticker to watch out for if you expect—and require—top-notch quality and service.

Certificate of Excellence

Next in “the hierarchy of recognition,” as Carter puts it, is the Certificate of Excellence, which is awarded to properties who maintain an overall bubble rating of at least four stars over the past year. (Again, an undisclosed minimum number of reviews is required.) To help you distinguish between this and the Traveler’s Choice Awards, “an even smaller number—those who are the cream-of-the-crop, best-of-the-best businesses—earn Travelers’ Choice Awards,” Carter says. Theoretically, these properties could also be eligible for the Travelers’ Choice Award as long as they kept their high rating. So if you happen upon a business with both, consider yourself very lucky. If it only has a Certificate of Excellence sticker, rest assured that it’s going to be solid.

Hall of Fame

A one-off created in 2015, “Hall of Fame” strikes me as an excuse to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Certificate of Excellence sticker. It was awarded to 29,042 properties globally, all of whom earned a Certificate of Excellence for five consecutive years, including 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. If given the choice between a business sporting this sticker or a plain old Certificate of Excellence, I’d go for the former since it reflects a standard of service. That said, a Certificate of Excellence from this year is a good omen.

Recommended On

The “Recommended On” sticker ranks lower than the Certificate of Excellence, as it’s given to properties that earned a bubble rating of 3.5 or higher rating at some point in time. That last point’s worth noting, as there’s no telling when this occurred, unless users specifically check their review page. My take? If you’re traveling on foot and find yourself in a bind, this sticker’s a nice vote of confidence. Otherwise, keep your expectations in check.   

Reviewed on TripAdvisor

TripAdvisor offers this sticker free to properties not affiliated with the awards, and all it means is they have a review page. If you’re in a remote area, you might find this one useful, since it’s sort of a sign of legitimacy. But aside from that, it’s really not notable. Any business can post a free sticker.

How the Stickers Can Help Travelers

TripAdvisor’s sticker system is helpful but hardly fool-proof. Even though stickers are dated, businesses can display them as long as they want. So if a charming café touts a Traveler’s Choice Award from 2010—and hasn’t received one since then—you can assume things have gone downhill. Then there’s the issue of Recommended On and Reviewed On, which sound too much alike. If you didn’t know one was available for free, you might assume the business was decent. Or perhaps because the wording’s so vague, you wouldn’t know what to think.

Either way, these stickers are only as helpful as your knowledge of how they work. For now, at least, I’m keeping my eyes peeled for Traveler’s Choice Award and Certificate of Excellence—both from this year.