This is the verdict of the latest 'Great Britain' edition of Lonely Planet. I have visited John O'Groats only twice, most recently about five years ago. My first visit was when I was a child, probably aged about eleven or twelve; in other words it was quite a long time ago.
When I visited as a child, with my parents, my reaction was that it was indeed a windswept, seedy outpost and I wondered (quite vocally, as I recall) why my parents had taken me there. I wanted to proceed immediately to Dounreay, just a few miles along the coast, to visit what was then quite an interesting exhibition about nuclear energy. My father was appalled by my lack of appreciation for the 'romanticism' of the location; my mother, as I recall, prudently tried to restore calm between her recalcitrant son and her offended husband.
So my visit about five years ago, as a detour prior to embarking on the ferry for Orkney, did not fill me with much excited anticipation. On a positive note, the weather was absolutely brilliant that day; naturally quite windy, but with clear sunshine and great visibility. Parts of the 'installations' there appeared to me to be a lot better than before and I bought a very nice hat in the one 'quality' outlet. However there is no escaping the fact that some of the other outlets were indeed chock full of over-priced tourist 'tat'. The lady from John O'Groats Ferries suggesting that the Lonely Planet authors "have obviously never been here" comes across as pathetic and most probably completely untrue. She really needs to face up to the reality - it is, overall and with perhaps some minor exceptions, an over-priced, rather seedy tourist trap. It's not alone in this, of course - some of the more popular tourist areas of London, Paris or Hong Kong are pretty seedy, too - but they are large and diverse enough to have many fine things to counteract this seediness. John O'Groats has only one thing going for it and a lot of people travel a long way to visit it - only to leave a little disappointed.
I have relied upon Lonely Planet guides in many parts of the world, from the publisher's home country Australia, large parts of east Asia to several countries in Europe and a few in Central America, even though I was never a back-packer. Guide books are usually somewhat superficial, but I have always found Lonely Planet guides to be pretty reliable when it comes to basic facts. I prefer to take their word against that of the self-interested denizens of John O'Groats any day.