Business owners seem to have a love-hate relationship with public review sites. On one hand, they’re a free – and often effective – marketing tool. On the other, they have reputation-damaging potential, and provide a hotbed for offensive and inaccurate comments.
Some restaurateur’s thoughts, however, are slightly blunter than that. ‘They’re an abomination,’ says Peter Kinsella. Peter is chef-patron to tapas restaurant Lunya Catalan Deli in Liverpool and Manchester. Both have overwhelmingly positive rapport on a certain well-known public review site (comments include ‘helpful staff’, ‘really good drinks choice’ and ‘brilliant for coeliacs’) yet this clearly has not forced a bias on Peter’s perspective.
‘The problem,’ he says, ‘is you don’t know the opinion of the person writing the review, so you cannot place their opinion. It also enables people to be anonymously rude and abusive.’
Anonymity and the power it affords is not so much an issue in other places where online ratings feature heavily. How often do we ask about the veracity of Amazon reviews, for instance?
‘Certain aspects [of review sites] are great,’ says co-director of Izakaya Harry Marquart, ‘because we can see where we are going wrong. But the restaurant sector is a totally different game now. It’s saturated. Some restaurateurs will do anything to tarnish a local rivals’ reputation.’
Rosaria Crolla, MD at The Italian Club Group, says they’ve had reviews ‘from someone taking a personal stance and lashing out at us.’ Meanwhile, Peter tells me he’s been threatened with the line ‘we’re going to tell everyone on Trip Advisor, even when the restaurant has offered to put things right and had to explain that, regrettably, mistakes happen.
Sufficient communication is also something Garry Manning, co-owner of the 60 Hope Street Group, is concerned about during guests’ visit – the reluctance to offer criticism face-to-face, then try and put things right, being a British habit we’d all do better to abandon. ‘Customers are always asked on numerous occasions if all is well and they never say on the day while eating,’ he says.
Harry agrees. ‘Like everything in the world,’ he says, ‘we can’t get it right every time. Quite often a customer will not say anything at the table, and when they get back to their computer become a keyboard warrior.’
Unfortunately, ignorance is also a common theme. Diners, for example, may be invited to a restaurant by their friends, only to realise they aren’t fans of the concept when they turn up. ‘Sometimes they’ve clearly come to the wrong place,’ says Peter. ‘“We don’t like tapas”’ they might write. ‘“We don’t like sharing food”’.
Perhaps, though, it’s not so much an issue as we think. Social media has the tendency to overamplify an isolated problem, whether it’s considered a problem or not. ‘I’m not sure we’ve experienced fake reviews,’ says Peter. ‘But I know restaurant and hotel owners talk about fake reviews – I’m not sure if it comes mostly from insecurity and not being able to take criticism.’
Then again, campaigns such as #NoReceiptNoReview – a passive though shared consternation that anyone can review a restaurant or bar without having visited it – and recent discussions brought up after a popular review site listed a restaurant which didn’t exist (and made it to London’s no.1 restaurant on the site) wouldn’t have come to fruition if this was something easily brushed aside.
Here’s something more concrete: it was estimated 85% of hotels and restaurants have fallen victim to phony or malicious online reviews last year – a 20% increase on the response from two years ago. Even when that number’s taken with a pinch of salt, it doesn’t take much of a browse to see where disgruntled operators are coming from. In November last year, a guest posted a one-star review about Harry’s restaurant Izakaya. It didn’t mention the quality of service. Or even the food. Just a single paragraph about how he might have been accidentally overcharged.
Unfortunately, it seems fake and illegitimate reviews could only be more of a problem. On the cusp of this piece going to press however, a new initiative called Truth Advisor has come to light which, based on a law drawn up in 2013, aims to help restaurateurs challenge defamatory comments from anonymous users and ultimately have these comments removed. While the jury’s out as to whether it’s a working solution, you can visit Truth Advisor’s website for advice on the defamation law, and how it can help restore a bit of honesty in public perceptions of your business.
Get started with OpenTable for Restaurants
We love talking with customers about their unique businesses. Simply fill out the below form and we will call you right back.