Rogue online reviewers are holding restaurants to ransom with their scathing remarks.
Eight Point Two is regarded as one of Auckland's top places to eat out. But owner Lindsay Swannack cringes each time a review email pings into his inbox.
"You tend to look at the bad ones more than the good ones. It's human nature,' Swannack said.
He is frustrated by the lack of transparency of one-off reviewers and those who are near impossible to please.
"You can't defend yourself. We take these very personally - well I do. It really does hurt."
Swannack said he would rather see reviewers visit a restaurant several times in order to give a fair assessment, than arrive on a busy Saturday night and complain.
Although a restaurant may have received plenty of good reviews, even a few poor reports can also pose a problem. As one reviewer put it: 'From the other reviews I've read, it sounds like this place is inconsistent - both in terms of food and service.'
Tales of diners determined to blast restaurants with scathing criticism are a growing concern within the industry. 'Once a review's gone on a website it's too late to fix the problem, then you're stuck with it,' Swannack said.
Shammi Sandhu, owner of Arrowtown's popular Indian restaurant, Mantra, says businesses even target each other - something she believes happened to her previous establishment in Queenstown.
Sandhu welcomes feedback, encouraging customers to rate their experiences in an in-house book. But she questions the need for critical online reviews.
"Out of about 2000 comments, we may get a couple about the service being slow or too expensive. About 60 per cent of the time I believe the reviews are genuine.People enjoy writing reviews and there's nothing wrong with it."
But she was shocked to find one diner re-posted a scathing review after a second visit, despite not mentioning any problems to staff.
"If someone complains about a hot meal, we don't argue because it's to do with the person's palate," Sandhu said. "We'll give them a complimentary mango chutney or extra popadoms or something."
Some diners seem to leap at the chance to criticise, the owner of Wellington's Juniper Restaurant and Bar, Ivy Shen said.
"Sometimes things go wrong but we always try to do our best and fix them up," Shen said. "Some people use strong wording, saying the whole place is bad, the staff are bad, the food is bad. They're just one in 100 people; 99 will have enjoyed the experience. It's tiring."
Simon Wright, executive chef at Auckland's award-winning French Cafe, said online reviews can be hard to interpret.
He has had positive responses from people who were simultaneously tough on star ratings. 'You can get a 6.5, which at first look is terrible, but when you read it, it's not that bad. It's very difficult, it can be quite damaging.'
The Engine Room is another example of a restaurant with a good reputation which has received subpar online ratings.
'We've had reviews come through and I've known exactly who it was,' co-owner Natalia Schamroth said.
In a recent case a diner slammed the restaurant online after telling staff everything was fine when approached during his meal.
'We were hoping to fix the situation but the customer said they felt more comfortable going online.'
The review is still there.
'I couldn't get it down. Every time I try with those sites, they send you an email to say you need to prove the review's incorrect,' Schamroth said.
Restaurant owners say they don't want to gag reviewers, they just wish customers would check their facts and let staff know at the time of any problem.
MenuMania has an automated filter to weed out fake or unfair reviews. The filter is alerted to particular words, so only comments which specifically detail the meal and service get through, general manager Karen Gibson said.
Businesses are emailed when a review is published, allowing them to message the writer privately to discuss any problems. Some reviewers later choose to remove their comments, but not everyone does. The site will look to remove the comments if, after five days, the writer has still not responded. In the meantime, business owners can post comments below the review.
'I'm not getting into the whole thing with emails online,' Schamroth said. 'I'd rather speak with them directly than provide entertainment for other people.
'If someone hasn't got something to say to your face, then what's the point?'
A New Zealand company specialising in online reputations, Fourth Media, encourages businesses to approach negative reviewers early. Defamation can result in legal action.
But little can be done about anonymous comments.
The Law Commission has suggested a Communications Tribunal be set up to address harmful online communication, and bullying would be an offence.
The removal of extreme personal attacks would be a last resort.
In Argentina, a controversial "right to be forgotten" rule offers the ability to have personal information pulled from Argentinean search engines. Critics argue the rule is a threat to freedom of speech.
The law is still developing around online defamation in New Zealand. 'There's a battle between the need for greater controls around what goes on the internet,' Buddle Findlay technology specialist Philip Wood said.
'But you can't stop people from doing reviews. As long as you don't defame anyone or write a direct untruth.'
But businesses also need to be aware of 'AstroTurfing', he said.
The term relates to creating a false groundswell of online support through fake Facebook "likes" and writing your own reviews.
'It's a dangerous territory if you're caught doing it, it can be treated as false advertising, breach of the Fair Trade Act or misleading conduct.'
WHAT'S EATING YOU?
More than a third of Kiwis (35 per cent) who rate restaurants online will post a negative response within hours of their meal.
And 27 per cent will vent their bad feelings immediately, according to the latest American Express Dining Survey.
The online survey looked at the social media review habits of 1000 New Zealanders aged 18 years and over.
The people most influenced by online reviews are those who eat out once a week or more, the survey found.
And Wellingtonians are most likely to vent bad experiences.
Diners are traditionally inclined to tell more people about a poor experience, Restaurant Association of New Zealand chief executive Marisa Bidois said. 'Diners are going online to vent their frustration; which means bad news now travels faster than ever before, and to a much bigger audience - it's definitely an emerging trend.'
Of Kiwis who rate their meals online, 56 per cent are more likely to give positive reviews; 32 per cent are more likely to give bad reviews. But happy diners take longer to share their experiences.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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