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Jul 11, 2013

Byte-sized vitriol: internet reviews sour for restaurants

Foodies have the power to make and break restaurants with online reviews. But can you believe everything you read? Legal affairs reporter Kate Gibbs reports on the fraud cruelling some diners.

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.”

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20 comments

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20 thoughts on “Byte-sized vitriol: internet reviews sour for restaurants

  1. Mitch Edgeworth

    Of course businesses are unhappy with customers comparing them with their competitors. Websites like urbanspoon and tripadvisor are certainly open to manipulation, but I’d rather live in a world where I have to sort the wheat from the chaff on an online review site than a world where those sites were blocked in Australia by the ACCC because some business owners were unhappy with consumers getting an edge on them.

  2. Coaltopia

    Exactly Mitch. Regulating web-sites? Seriously?

  3. Bob the builder

    How does this compare to the widespread practice of buying off ‘official’ reviewers?

    Soon enough word of mouth will prevail and people will ignore the websites. The only long-term losers in this are the review websites, if they become totally unreliable.

    For the moment I’d say to business owners, you’re either getting genuine, deserved poor reviews or people will hear by word of mouth and come anyway – surely if your product or service is so good you’ll get repeat customers?!?

  4. Moving to Paraguay

    The obvious solution would be to have reviews of the reviewers. If you could notify the owner that you are reviewing before the meal, receive confirmation of this on the site, that would prove you were there – and probably also ensure you get a good meal and service.

  5. john gallagher

    The issue about the reviews on the website and comments really is how the content is rated, a lot of websites just have submit a review and this is open to abuse as shown in the article.

    However if you look at website like slashdot they have a moderator system that works really well and is moderated by select random members of the community, this leads to improved comments and the ability to filter out trolls, yes it can be abused but out of all the comment ranking systems I have used this is the best.

    So it the question back to these review website is why have you not implemented a improved rating system for your content?

  6. Rachel Quilligan

    The response from owners on the reviews can be much more influential than the reviews themselves. A concerned manager that reaches out to a complaining customer to offer reparation for a bad meal or bad service can not only turn the original customer’s opinion but also anyone else who views the bad review and great response.
    I once saw a bunch of Google reviews that had unbelievably aggressive responses from the manager/owner, they were absolutely attacking anyone who had a minor criticism to make. It was actually funny it was so outrageous and I would never visit that business after seeing the way the owner dealt with customer service. If that wasn’t the legitimate owner and instead was a troll or competitor, that would’ve been a major problem for the business, and if so, the lesson here is to keep an eye on your online identity!
    Places like Urbanspoon have so many reviews though that it’s hard to imagine anyone trying to rig the results is having much of an effect.

  7. citizen

    Of course the customer review websites are open to manipulation. However they at least provide consumers with a venue to comment on the goods and services provided by businesses. For too long consumers have had to put up with dubious advertising claims (4 out of 5 dentists recommend…), paid reviewers who are given a free flight or meal, as well as “advertorials” of dubious worth. For my part, Tripadvisor and other review websites provide a convenient listing of hotels, restaurants and the like in a particular area. Treat the reviews with a grain of salt and do your bit to ensure the bulk of reviews are honest.

  8. Kristian

    Ah! So it’s the Internet’s fault!

    Moving right along then…

  9. Maisie

    I think most consumers look at the overall ratings for a restaurant, not the odd bad one. My own experience using TripAdvisor to find restaurants in Prague, the US and Scotland has been very good. We found the most amazing Mexican restaurant in walking distance from our accommodation in Prague last year. Earlier this year my partner and I visited the US. I was able to find and book an amazing restaurant in Santa Barbara weeks before leaving home. The food and atmosphere lived up to the many good reviews of this restaurant on trip advisor and I was glad that I had ignored the odd bad review. I agree with another comment that the response of the restaurant itself to good and bad reviews is an important aspect of my decision. My local favourite restaurant has good trip advisor reviews too, so as a consumer I think overall review sites are great idea.

  10. Bob the builder

    And most of these websites allow you to look at the reviewers’ review history – to see the type of reviews and the breadth of reviews. Much like couchsurfing.org, it’s pretty easy to tell who’s mad or unreasonable or gaming.

    This really is sour grapes from yet another interest group that doesn’t want open comment on their operations.

    Calls to ‘regulate the internet’ are just so infantile!

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