Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Have Restaurant Reviews Become Weaponised?

There is no doubt that we live in a world whereby you are only as good as the last review you received.  Last year I wrote an article for this magazine about the modern review culture and how we have become obsessed by, not only leaving reviews, but by reading them and digesting them as if our lives depended on it. 

The point at which I draw the line is when I get asked to leave a review or comment regarding the packaging or the state of the delivery driver’s van. But, unfortunately, this culture has led some people to become malicious in their opinions and leave comments that they know will do harm to someone’s business.  This is how review culture has become weaponised and we need to do something about it now!

There are plenty of restaurant review sites

Let me explain.  There are plenty of restaurant review sites out there but two of the biggest are possibly Tripadvisor and Google.  Tripadvisor has certainly tightened its criteria over recent years and has made an attempt to give less credence to one-time reviewers.  The one-time review can work both ways, in that a restaurant owner may ask his friends to give him some 5 star reviews.  Conversely, it can also be used against the restaurateur if, for example, someone has an unjustified reason to be negative or works for a competitor restaurateur. 

Tripadvisor believes that if a person has done several varied reviews there is a greater chance that their reviews will be genuine.  But what measures do they take to ensure that a review is genuine and that that person has actually eaten at the restaurant?  The answer to that, in my experience, is very little.  Some years ago my own restaurant was the subject of a malicious review attack.  I knew that these people had never set foot inside my restaurant but when I confronted Tripadvisor their response was that the review matched their criteria. 

I even asked the “reviewer” to tell me what they had eaten, because there was no mention of this in the review.  So the next malicious review picked several menu items from my published menu, but again Tripadvisor stated that the review matched their criteria.  As a business owner it is extremely difficult to get these comments removed and, although we can respond to each review, most potential customers are only scanning through in order to get an overall picture and are not interested in reasons and responses.

Have Restaurant Reviews Become Weaponised?
Image by athree23 from Pixabay

The biggest culprit, however, is Google. An anonymous person, bored on a sunday afternoon, can flick through a series of businesses and leave a “rating” from 1-star to 5-star.  They don’t have to leave a comment or their name or actually have any knowledge of that business.  Or perhaps they do have knowledge of that business and just want to do it harm! If you were so minded it would be possible to lower the average score of a business very quickly. 

We have a situation locally where I live whereby a restaurant owned and operated by a couple is being targeted by local people who do not like that they are not French.  À series of negative comments and 1-star ratings has severely affected the business and the well-being of those who operate it to the extent that they have closed temporarily.  These small-minded, pathetic individuals will never be brought to task because the review websites make it too easy for this to occur.  Their motivation is not to highlight restaurants but to gain as many reviews as possible making them the go-to site for travellers and in return earning extra advertising revenue – sounds cynical; maybe, maybe not.

A friend and local restaurateur is so incensed by the unfairness of the system that she wants to start a movement against the big companies.  What people don’t realise is how hard we work within the hospitality industry and that our business is not just a job; it is a way of life and occupies practically every waking moment of our time. Most importantly we are human with families, personal issues, good days and bad days.  As restaurateurs we don’t have a choice of whether or not we are included on review websites.  So, we want to call on Tripadvisor and Google and all the others to tighten their criteria.

Firstly, do away with the rating system.  Do not allow anyone to just rate a restaurant, make them write a structured opinion that includes information about the place where they have eaten. If the restaurateur does not believe that the person has actually visited their establishment, make the customer provide evidence, whether it be a till receipt or photos taken at the time. 

Secondly, if the restaurateur has a genuine grievance, investigate it properly.  Don’t just state that it fits with your criteria or current algorithm. 

Thirdly, if a restaurateur wants to have their listing suspended temporarily or removed permanently, let them.  I know the argument is that the customer should be able to see a balanced overview of the businesses available but for some business owners the pressure is too much particularly when suffering a negative run of reviews.

Unfortunately, I know it will be too much to ask for the small-minded idiots who deliberately leave bad reviews in the hope of harming someone’s business to change their ways.  But I think that as restaurateurs we should call out these people and not let them hide in the shadows and remain anonymous.  If just one person reading this thinks twice about how they word their next review and the impact that it might have, then my work is started.

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Dave Winteridge
I am a restaurateur in the South of France but originally from Great Britain. I have spent around 30 years in the hospitality industry and over the past 12 years I have opened restaurants in Spain and France. I am a keen skier, living in the Pyrenees, and ideally for the future I would like to spend less time at the stove and more time at the keyboard.

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