A trip through the murky world of online reviews

Restaurants and hotels are at the mercy of mischievous write-ups
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While buying door handles, toilet roll holders and soap dishes from the comfort of my home this weekend, I became transfixed by their online reviews. “It dries my hands so I’m satisfied with it!” wrote one of a John Lewis towel. Another exhorted: “It washes and keeps its pure white colour which I Iike, if I have white I like it to be a pure white and this is.”

I was gobsmacked. Who reviews a hand towel? But later, these small paeans to the monotony of daily life stirred guilt. When it comes to writing online reviews, I am sadly remiss. By the time the product arrives it is too late, I have already forgotten the seller. The needy emails imploring me to appraise my purchase seem like a whiny child demanding attention. In truth, I lack any civic duty when it comes to the online marketplace.

Professional critics and reviewers were meant to be replaced by the cheaper wisdom of the crowds. Yet a, somewhat diminished, group survives. As the fanfare surrounding Monday’s publication of the Michelin Guide book shows, expertise is still important no matter what the Brexiters claimed. It is a way to cut through the noisy amateur critics.

I know not to trust these online critics. This summer I visited a well-reviewed bar in Bilbao. The tables were not in fact set out in a tranquil terrace but on a dual carriageway next to industrial bins. Yet I cannot help but be swayed by this collective wisdom, or stupidity. I am not alone. Research published in the Economic Journal looked at ratings of over 300 San Francisco eating places on Yelp, the customer review site. It found that if a restaurant improves its rating by just half a star — on a scale of 1 to 5 — it is more likely to be full.

The power of such reviews is why many restaurateurs hate sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor. They detest the anonymity, the evident glee of vindictive reviewers’ posts and the attempted muggings whereby customers threaten to leave harsh reviews unless they get a discount or freebie.

Chef Gary Usher has been a vociferous critic. Earlier this year he submitted a fake review to TripAdvisor of his Chester restaurant, Sticky Walnut, and broadcast it on Twitter to draw attention to bonkers customer critiques: “When the manager came over & ate my dawg I was so annoyed I got up on the table & painted the ceiling with my fingers which are made out of paint brushes.”

The site TripAdvisor Destroys is pretty clear about the problems. Negative reviews, it says, can be “devastating and even put people out of business”. Anyone can post lies, it asserts. The author of one post on the site wrote: “I myself have 14 TripAdvisor accounts, that I have setup (sic) in the past few weeks.”

Paid reviews are a problem for all sites. In the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority investigated online reviews and endorsements, finding that some practices may be unlawful and misleading. Earlier this week, Amazon, the ecommerce company, announced that in the past year it had “improved review ratings by introducing a machine learned algorithm” and was banning incentivised reviews tied to free or discounted products. TripAdvisor admits the problem, too. On the site it concedes: “Yes, there are companies that claim they can submit reviews and boost a property’s standing in the . . . popularity index.”

Despite requests from business owners to remove their restaurant or hotel from the site, TripAdvisor will only do so if the company is closed or sold. “With just a little effort,” the site advises, “you can turn your TripAdvisor listing into a powerful marketing tool to impress visitors to the world’s largest travel site.”

It is not just hoteliers hit by malicious reviews who are nervous. Last month I tried to go to a new local Turkish restaurant to find it was “reservation-only”. That was baffling. I had been walking past it for weeks and there were spare tables. Suddenly it had been propelled to number one on TripAdvisor’s London restaurants. Later I went back to talk to the owner about her rapid rise in popularity. It made her twitchy. “It takes you up quickly and it can take you down too,” she told me. She never trusts reviews, preferring a place to “touch your heart” instead. That is just as well. After two reviewers had complained, she had slipped down a notch.

emma.jacobs@ft.com

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