The trouble with Trip Advisor and restaurant reviews

Some Trip Advisor reviews are fake and are written by individuals who have never even dined at the restaurant.

Some Trip Advisor reviews are fake and are written by individuals who have never even dined at the restaurant.

OPINION: Looking back over the past year, one of the complaints the Restaurant Association often hears of from members is regarding some of the reviews posted about their establishment on Trip Advisor and other similar sites.

Whilst many reviews are positive, accurate and fair, restaurateurs also say reviews, with legitimate negative comments, are very useful and are taken on board and changes and improvements made.

Professional customers will of course bring any perceived shortcomings to the attention of the front of house there and then so that any negative aspects can be remedied immediately.

However, many customers prefer to go home and type up something anonymously whereby the restaurant has very limited options in resolving any issues. The problem with the Trip Advisor type of customer feedback system is that some reviews are not legitimate and are written by individuals who have never even dined at the restaurant. 

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This issue of authentication of the customer and whether they had actually dined at a restaurant was exposed recently in France where someone wrote a detailed negative review on a new restaurant called Loiseau Des Ducs several days before it had even opened.

The French courts forced Trip Advisor to reveal the identity of the reviewer and the individual was taken to court and fined 7500 Euros.

Another great example of the flaws in this system was highlighted recently when an Italian magazine created a fake restaurant and submitted it for inclusion on Trip Advisor they then posted 10 fake perfect reviews. Within a month it had attracted over 200 other reviews from other Trip Advisor reviewers and was soon listed as the best restaurant in Moniga del Gara.

The magazine was appalled by Trip Advisors blasé response when they revealed the scam and have started a campaign to force Trip Advisor to only accept reviews with a photo of the receipt from the restaurant proving they dined there.

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WHERE'S THE TRUST?

In an age of information overload and choice, many consumers look to these sites to help them decide on where to spend their money on dining out. But how can a consumer trust these reviews when a restaurant or cafe in the same week or sometimes the same day can be given a 5 star experience by one diner to 1 star by another?

This highlights the flaw in that anyone can sit at a computer and open numerous accounts and tap away making scurrilous comments about someone's business.

We recently had an example where an association member had an impatient customer, who was upset that the restaurant was momentarily full and did not want to wait 15 minutes for a table and yelled at the host that he had six fake Trip Advisor accounts and he would put 1-star reviews on all of them before storming out!

LEARN FROM AIRBNB 

At least with sites like accommodation website Airbnb, which also relies on consumer reviews to drive business, you can only post a review if you have actually stayed at the property, which Airbnb knows as your review is linked to your booking which you had to have made through the Airbnb site.

For further enhanced integrity of the site, to register with Airbnb you have to submit a scan of your passport and they also prefer you to join through Facebook so they can see you are a real person with a history.

Trip Advisor and others have no such policy and this is where the system is abused. The Italian courts in December 2014 fined Trip Advisor 500,000 Euros for failing to adopt sufficient mechanisms to stop consumers being exposed to fake reviews. They claim they have algorithms that can spot fake reviews but obviously this is not the case.

INCONSISTENT REVIEWS

Clearly, Trip Advisor has a problem with restaurants as their reviews for hotels seem to be more consistent. The experience in a hotel is more fixed; such as the location, decor, and hotel amenities. The actual service experiences are usually minimal, with the check in or check out and maybe some room service being the only significant interaction with staff. 

Restaurants provide a much more complex hospitality experience, with just in time food manufacturing and multiple service contacts. The service and the product can interpreted in different ways depending on the customer's mood, demographic, level of intoxication, culture and familiarity with dining in full service restaurants.

One person's slow service is another person's lovely leisurely dinner. Everyone can have a different opinion on flavours, portion size, prices and so on. Is there a better model? 

I believe Zagat, which started in New York in the 1970's as a book of restaurant review listings for specific cities (now online) is much better model. It's a review system that is not easily open to manipulation as the published review of each restaurant is an overall rating and the text is a paragraph of feedback compiled from multiple reviews, often hundreds, which highlights common themes.

For example here is the one for The Gramercy Tavern in New York City: A "landmark" that "never wavers", Danny Meyer's "exemplary" Flatiron New American remains "totally on point" thanks to chef Michael Anthony's "phenomenal" menu, "off-the-charts" service and a "vibrant" setting adorned with "fanciful flowers"; prix fixe–only at dinner, the dining room is "high-end" but "not stuffy", while going à la carte in the "less formal" front tavern is "not too eye-popping" pricewise.

This means that outlier reviews whether posted by trolls or even the restaurant owner cannot impact the general consensus. Obviously, no system is perfect, but Zagat seems to be a model that would be harder to manipulate either way.

THE REAL DEAL

As industry professionals, when we want recommendations of where to dine we will talk to colleagues to get the best information or if travelling use sites like Eater.com or apps like Where Chefs Eat.

The current reality is that some of our guests do rely on the Trip Advisor type of site for assistance for dining choices. However, as the manipulation of these forums becomes more ubiquitous and the confusion increases as to what is actually the real deal then the relevance of them will lessen - unless their model evolves.

Mike Egan is the national president of the Restaurant Association of New Zealand.

 - Stuff

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