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Chefs and restaurant owners are already dealing with customers’ out-of-focus shots of their masterpieces on Instagram, and mobs of bloggers tweeting and using flash photography in their dining rooms. But in the modern world, where everyone’s a critic with a smartphone, it’s customer review sites that they really find hard to swallow.

Restaurant review sites — the new Yellow Pages and one-stop-shop for addresses, contact details and independent critiques — have the hospitality industry on its knees.

One restaurant owner talked of a man who was living in a block of flats next door. After a neighbourly debate about bottles being put in the wrong recycling bin, the consumer went on a “campaign of reviews”, slating the restaurant. Rustling up friends and family to do the same, the result was damning online vitriol spanning sites Eatability, TripAdviser and Urbanspoon. The restaurant contacted various sites to alert them, but nothing else has been done.

There are tales of scathing reviews from competitors under the anonymous cloak of “customers”, and of restaurants bolstering their own rankings by nudging friends to glowingly tap away in their online profiles. It’s a bogus grassroots movement terrifying small business owners and those who prefer to let their search engines do the walking.

Anyone can write a review, and there is no process to confirm whether a “reviewer” has even eaten at the restaurant. Star rankings and thumbs-ups, “likes” and “favourites”, votes running into the thousands for a single restaurant, it’s enough to keep a small business owner glued to the computer screen, sweating.

Customer review sites are reshaping the world of restaurants. If the way of the United States is anything to go by, a survey by the Opinion Research Corporation found 84% of Americans say online reviews influence their purchasing decisions.

In a bid to stamp out fake reviews and testimonials, restaurants have called on Restaurant and Catering Australia, the not-for-profit association representing 35,000 restaurants, cafes and caterers nationally, and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to help. The ACCC is now investigating whether sites such as Eatability, Urbanspoon and TripAdviser need to be regulated.

About 10% of Restaurant and Catering Australia members have made complaints about online review platforms “due to the fact that it is unclear whether the comments posted are legitimate and who the author is”, according to chief executive office John Hart.

Urbanspoon has told media that its operational policies prevent fraudulent reviews, claiming it has invested time building proprietary technology that identifies system fraud and gaming. Hart is not convinced.

“They say they use algorithms and can pick up a vexatious review. But sites that say they do this are also getting a lot of vexatious reviews, so it’s clearly not working. Many of my members can demonstrate that comments on these sites have come from former staff with an axe to grind, owners of competing businesses, and consumers who are disgruntled about something so go on a vexatious campaign,” he told Crikey.

“Some companies and restaurants go as far as employing people to write positive or negative reviews on their behalf.”

The ACCC is “cracking down on the astroturfing phenomenon of letting others pump up the merits of a business”, said Peter Campbell, a defamation partner at commercial law firm Kelly & Co. “It’s misleading, and this falls neatly within restrictions that currently exist about consumer protection. So it’s a matter of being able to prove this is happening, and then enforcing it.”

Campbell warns a few businesses and rogue reviewers will be cherry-picked by the ACCC “to send a message to the industry”.

The ACCC is concerned less with the concerns of restaurant owners and chefs and more with the mass audience these sites draw in, those people who will eat out on the back of a fraudulent review. “If it sees there is some kind of consumer harm being done, that this online word-of-mouth is misleading, then it will get involved via regulation,” Campbell said.

But there are no clear answers about what is to be done. “The sites themselves are not dodgy, but the content sometimes is,” sais Campbell. “There are questions around whether there needs to be more rigour around users providing details so their comments can be tracked, and it might get to that point. It’s unlikely the sites will be banned altogether, they will say they are innocently disseminating.”

There’s no inspiration from overseas, either; Hart says there’s “nothing worth talk about in this space elsewhere”. He points to US-based consumer review site Yelp, which “has let the mast run further than we have in Australia”.

“It’s not regulated at all and it has created a huge problem for businesses. Some companies and restaurants go as far as employing people to write positive or negative reviews on their behalf,” he said.

Yelp — which carries the motto “Real People. Real Reviews” — confirmed in October 2012 it had a problem with companies trying to manipulate its results. So it set up a sting operation to catch them, targeting a moving company, two repair shops and others. For three months, those businesses’ Yelp profile pages featured a “consumer alert” that said: “We caught someone red-handed trying to buy reviews for this business.”

Sites based overseas have similar rules and experiences to those in Australia, according to Campbell. But tracking down the culprits is challenging. “It’s slow and expensive to find out who wrote an anonymous review,” he told Crikey. “There are steps being taken now to making finding ISPs [internet service providers] easier, and in the near future we may find that people can be found more easily and cannot hide behind anonymity.”

Hart advises chefs and restaurant owners to listen to the social media megaphones and pay attention to the buzz of customers’ opinions online. Once they have tuned in to the online conversation they need to manage it. Attending patiently to former customers’ concerns can potentially turn their views around, he says.

Campbell says restaurants should take steps to request non-legitimate content is taken down. “When they become aware of material that is not genuine, they should contact the site owner. But they may be able to do nothing more than request it,” he said.

And those who are looking for a good, reliable night out have a couple of choices: turn to professional reviewers instead, or look for critical mass. “People should look for inconsistencies,” Campbell said. “One rosy review will not ensure a booking, but a lot can been gleaned from a swathe of reviews which tend to agree with one another.”

Peter Fray

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