reviewing the reviewers

Are online reviews undermining the restaurant industry? Or are a few disgruntled diners ruining it for everybody?

A decade ago, the restaurant critic was a journalist who had landed the most enviable scoop of all – while his colleagues reported from war zones or investigated fraud, the restaurant critic dined out in style for a living. Today, the restaurant critic can be anyone with a craving for Thai, a smart phone and Internet access. Websites such as Urban Spoon or Eatability provide a place for diners to post reviews promoting or slamming last night’s dinner venue.

Online reviews are not subject to verification, so it is arguably possible to manipulate the public perception of a restaurant, simply by posting countless reviews on various sites. A restaurant can boost its profile by posting a series of glowing reviews praising the food, the service and the ambiance – and nobody will realise the “reviews” were all written by the chef and the head waiter.

Demands for regulation

Now restaurant owners are banding together to demand that such websites should be regulated to stamp out false and misleading reviews. CEO of Restaurant and Catering Australia (RAC), John Hart says that most online review platforms do not require a complainant to leave contact details, so it is impossible for the restaurant to verify the complaint or respond to it directly.

“About 10 percent of our 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,” Mr Hart said.
“The websites are not compelled to pass the complainant’s information to the business, as it breaches privacy laws.”

Mr Hart believes the anonymity of review sites has led to some businesses commissioning reviews in order to enhance their own reputation or damage the reputation of a competitor.

Monitoring Reviews

So how does a potential diner judge a restaurant according to the reviews? If there are a phenomenal number of good reviews, start by looking at the dates of the reviews – it is extremely unlikely that scores of customers all had a 5-star experience at the same restaurant in one night. For bad reviews, check out the profiles of the reviewers – do they always post bad reviews? Could the problem have been solved simply by talking to the manager?

The anonymous restaurant reviews on sites like Urban Spoon and Eatability are posted under user names so it is possible to informally trace the review history under that user name, just as you can read all the reviews for one particular restaurant.

Monitoring the reviews in this way, there doesn’t seem to be any indication of “making” or “breaking” a restaurant through an avalanche of positive or negative reviews, although some reviewers post an extremely high number of reviews within a short time frame. One reviewer, who posts as “Sir and M’Lady Dine Out”, is a dedicated amateur reviewer and posts several reviews with photos a week, covering restaurants all over Australia.

Most reviewers tend to post a variety of good and bad reviews and most complaints are about issues that would have been better resolved directly with the restaurant, such as bad service or poorly prepared meals. Many others are simply gripes about not enjoying the food: “The food served is amateurish and pretentious, taste was average if not poor, and the menu of course is very much overpriced! Serving is way small too!”

A Chef’s Perspective

Chef of Six Strings Brewing Company in Erina, Simon Leese says that while online reviewers provide great publicity without the expense of major advertising, one disgruntled customer can override all the other positive reviews.

“People with a gripe tend to post more than those with a positive experience,” says Simon. “We don’t have any control over removing posts or keeping the comments in perspective.”

Simon believes that television shows like Master Chef have a strong influence on diners. “Everyone wants to be a food critic, and everyone believes they can make it at home,” he says.
Try for yourself!

Ultimately, the only way to truly know the quality of a restaurant is to sample the food yourself. Who knows, you might be inspired to write your own review!

Sample bad reviews:

“We ordered their salad which was of lower quality than my sister-in-laws salads… And the piece de resistance or should I say piece de extravagance was the fried ice cream, while it tasted ok, the price certainly made you expect a lot more than just ok.”

“The strawberry and ricotta muffin is delicious, but their masala chai tea is just water and milk. I forgot what else we ordered (from the menu) and that’s probably a testament to how average it was.”

“Honestly, I only come here for fried ice cream. My best friend’s mother makes better dishes, with more vibrant flavours and whatnot.”

“We’ve been to this restaurant at least ten times and every meal I’ve ordered, they’ve consistently given me one piece of meat, that’s right, one piece only.”

“We gave our dog some of the coconut sorbet. He loved it. We didn’t.”

*Images courtesy of theweekendedition.com.au and beverfood.com

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