Online restaurant guides can be a boon for business—but who owns the information and reviews published on them? Alexander Gilly investigates
The digerati do love their acronyms, and one that’s been on the tips of everyone’s typing fingers lately—and which matters to restaurateurs—is UGC, short for User-Generated Content. It refers to everything posted on a website by anyone not employed by that site.
Anyone can create content on the web. I’m not a professional food critic, but I can register my name (or fake name) on, say, eatability.com.au, then write a review of the dinner I ate at your restaurant last night. I’ll rate the food, ambience, service and value on scales of one to ten. Eatability then creates an overall rating for your restaurant based on all the UGC on their site, including mine. On top of that, it generates a Top-50 list of restaurants based on the average of its user-generated ratings—though in an effort to prevent any funny business, Eatability uses weighted rather than straight averages. Not surprisingly, Eatability keeps its weighting methods to itself.
Lochiel House, a restaurant in Kurrajong, had an overall rating of 8.9, based on 47 reviews the day I checked (May 8, 2009). It scored 9/10 for food, ambience and service, and 8.3 for value. Lochiel House came third on Eatability’s ‘Top 50’ list for Sydney. For comparison, Tetsuya’s came 13th. Given that the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide gives Tetsuya’s three chef’s hats and Lochiel House one, it’s clear Eatability’s users have different criteria to professional food critics.
The big question is, does UGC affect business? Does your UGC rating matter the way reviews in newspapers and magazines do? And if the answer is yes, what can you do about it?
“I’m not sure if older clientele read Eatability or any of those sites, but younger people do say they read the online reviews,” says Monique Maul, owner of Lochiel House. “And I have noticed more young people coming into the restaurant lately.”
Maul recognises that a reputation can make or break a restaurant, and was obviously pleased when she learnt about the positive UGC about Lochiel House. However, she recognises that there’s a dark side, too: any hack, disgruntled customer or unscrupulous rival can post something nasty online.
“I did have one person post something quite nasty and defamatory on another restaurant review site,” says Maul, “but I emailed the site and they removed it.”
Adam Gerondis, owner of Sobo restaurant in Bondi, had a different experience. “I didn’t particularly want to be listed on Eatability, but when I asked for it to be removed, they refused.”
It wasn’t that the reviews were damaging Gerondis’s business. In fact, Sobo had a good overall score (7.7) the day I checked. What Gerondis says he objects to is the lack of consultation.
“Eatability never asked me if I wanted to be on there, and I object to that. At one point, they even blocked me from using it, when I tried to change the name of the restaurant and so on. I wrote them letters and it would take weeks to get a response. When I finally did, they told me the information was freely available and they weren’t going to remove it. But the reviews aren’t freely available. They’re only there because Eatability puts them there. What other industry is open to such scrutiny that anyone can go in and write absolutely anything they want about it? The whole system is so easily abused and I didn’t want any part of it. But there was nothing I could do.”
When asked (via email) about such concerns, Celeste Ong from Eatability said: “If a restaurateur contacts us about any review that they have a concern with, we will help to investigate by looking for signs of potential abuse within our system and by contacting the reviewer to ensure that they stand behind their review as being truthful and accurate. If the reviewer does not provide this confirmation to us, we will remove the review.
“We try to be as comprehensive as possible so we do not de-list any businesses. However, we will help businesses with reviews they are concerned with. We normally don’t remove factual and publicly available information on a listing.”
Like many, Gerondis wanted to know who owns the online reviews. In general terms, the copyright of the UGC on any given site will
reside either with the publisher (the website) or the author, depending on the site’s terms and conditions. The site will usually reserve the right ‘but not the obligation’ to remove any review that fails to meet its stated standards of content.
So copyright law isn’t pertinent here. What matters is defamation law, and the legal pond where defamation law and the internet meet is particularly muddy. The Australian Press Council has this to say on defamation law on its website: “The uniform Defamation Act does not include a definition but is based on the common law approach that defamation concerns injury to reputation by: exposing a person to hatred, contempt or ridicule; or lowering a person’s estimation in the eyes of right-minded observers; or making others shun or avoid a person.”
Of course, not every negative review is defamatory. “Just because a user-generated review reflects poorly on a restaurant doesn’t make it defamatory,” says Nic Suzor, Chair of the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, a non-profit organisation that defends internet-users’ rights.
And if it’s not defamatory, there’s nothing you can do about it. Still, there are several good reasons why this isn’t as bad as it sounds.
First, the restaurant review websites are usually quick to take down defamatory posts, as Monique Maul discovered. It’s not in their interest to make themselves liable to defamation suits, nor does it help their image if they publish crazy, unhelpful rants.
“We strongly advise venues to apply to manage their listings on Eatability—not only to promote their restaurants to our community but also to manage any negative reviews that are posted on their listing,” says Celeste Ong.
“There is no cost in managing a listing and having a comprehensive listing on Eatability. Restaurant managers are able to reply to reviews (both positive and negative) to give their side of the story. This allows users to be able to read both sides of the story and judge for themselves. It is also a great communication tool for venues, and many managers now foster goodwill with their patrons and take the time to thank users for their helpful comments.
“We strive to give users a chance to voice their opinion, good or bad, but it is fair comment and honest opinion that we’re looking for. This is the type of information that is useful for everyone. Of course, every restaurant hopes that all reviews will be positive but we have to reflect what people are actually saying.”
Although anyone can post a review, in practice most UGC is created by a small percentage of web-users. And these web-users tend to be concerned with their own reputations, which means they take the time to think about what they write.
Furthermore, some review sites have ‘rate the rater’ systems that help sort the wheat from the chaff.
“Extrinsic reward systems, such as a ‘rate the rater’ system, motivate people to write well,” says Suzor. “For instance, users who want to be recognised in their online community as a great restaurant critic will think about what they write before posting.”
User-generated restaurant reviews are here to stay. The digerati will continue to eat out, and they’ll continue to write reviews. Most importantly, more and more people will read the reviews before choosing a restaurant. There’s nothing you can do to stop them. The best strategy is to focus on your core business and encourage positive reviews while keeping an eye out for defamatory ones.
Or as Suzor put it: “The best remedy to bad speech is more speech.”