Fake online reviews are bad news for the industry. John Burfitt explains how they have now become a new target for the ACCC.
On the topic of fake online restaurant reviews, consultant James Eling has a favourite tale from one of his clients. “An online review appeared that said of this restaurant, everything was just okay, but the reviewer would not go back as there are far better places in the area to eat,” Eling, of consultancy Marketing4Restaurants, recalls. “The restaurant’s chef then sent a one-line response back: ‘This review is very interesting as we don’t open until next week.’ What we quickly realised was one of their competitors could not even wait until they opened their doors to put the boot in. And the chef’s response revealed that to people reading that online.”
In the age of social media, everyone is a critic and what really counts to your business is that their opinions can have impact. Online dining sites like TripAdvisor, Dimmi, UrbanSpoon and Eatability have become the new word of mouth, with reviews shaping public opinion of what is being served up in restaurants around the globe. That makes them a powerful force, be the review positive, negative or indifferent, and especially if they are fake.
In response to industry concerns about the rise of fake online reviews, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has released guidelines for businesses and review platforms. It defines a fake as, ‘Reviews that may mislead consumers if they are presented as impartial, but were written by the reviewed business, a competitor, someone paid to write the review who has not used the product and someone who has used the product but written … to receive a financial or non-financial benefit’.
The ACCC also warns online platforms that do not remove reviews that they know to be fake risk breaching the Competition and Consumer Act 2010.
In a recent statement, Restaurant & Catering Australia’s CEO John Hart said fake reviews were a huge problem, and estimated as many as one in 10 reviews had “some falsehood in it”. He also stated the ACCC guidelines did not go far enough and called for a code of conduct for review platforms.
It’s a concern echoed by Stevan Premutico of the restaurant booking and review site, Dimmi. “It’s one of the biggest issues the industry has and unless it’s controlled, it will get worse,” he says. “We hear about issues of fake reviews, ex-staff reviews, competitor reviews, etc, every week. It’s a constant source of frustration for the hospitality industry as they can often be personal and spiteful.
“At Dimmi we’re focused on ensuring our reviews are from verified diners—only those who have booked and dined. Interestingly, over 80 per cent of Dimmi reviews are positive.”
The ACCC website lists a series of points to help identify fake reviews, including ones written from the same email or IP address or as the business reviewed, written in overly positive or ‘marketing speak’ writing styles or written in the same language as other reviews of the same business or product.
Hospitality media consultant David Wasserman suggests if a spate of fake reviews are spotted, then the restaurant owner should do some investigation before taking action.
“One thing is to check how many other reviews that person has written, and if it is just the one, then you probably know it is false,” Wasserman of Sydney’s Wasamedia says. “Also if they seem a too over-the-top, either positive or negative, then they are likely to be false too.
“There will always be people who write garbage. A lot of people on these sites are trolling and get a kick out of complaining by writing a bad review. Rarely have these trolls even stepped foot into your restaurant, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to be careful about what they are alleging.”
“It’s one of the biggest issues the industry has and unless it’s controlled, it will get worse. We hear about issues of fake reviews, ex-staff reviews, competitor reviews etc every week.” Stevan Premutico, Dimmi
He suggests two strategies for dealing with online reviews that appear false.
“First thing, contact the reviewer directly, state that this situation concerns you and ask them to contact you directly by phone or email. But just remember, you can never argue with crazy!
“If you do believe you are being trolled, then most of these sites are pretty good at helping out. When you state your case, they do take it seriously.”
Not all fake reviews, however, are vicious. Sometimes, the 100 per cent positive ones, overflowing with verbose high praise and usually written by the business itself, can do as much damage as a bad one, adds Ed Charles from Melbourne’s Tomato Media.
“If a reader only finds all positive reviews, that can appear just as fake and make them suspicious,” he says. “
“If you have 50 reviews and most are good, then three bad ones won’t hurt you. Sometimes a few bad online reviews can balance everything else out.”
TripAdvisor is today the largest travel-review website in the world, with dining reviews making up a large portion of their content. Avril Carter, TripAdvisor’s territory manager, business listings for Australasia, says the processes for dealing with online fraud has undergone dramatic improvement in recent years.
“Every review goes through our tracking system, and we map the how, what, where and when of each review,” Carter states. “They investigate every review that is flagged for inspection by our system, and act on any reports we get from our community.”
While most sites do have strict policies in place, Dimmi’s Stevan Premutico says it pays to be alert to what is happening online and correct anything that is inaccurate. “Some sites are better than others at investigating these but be persistent and if you don’t get any feedback from the site, send a complaint to their customer service team,” he says.
But in all cases, David Wasserman adds, a restaurateur should never underestimate the power online reviews now hold. “You need to remember that the review is up there for all the world to see,” he says. “If you take your business seriously, then you will do something about it.”