Online review sites can be a double-edged sword

15 November 2013
Online review sites can be a double-edged sword

Richard, Earl of Bradford, outlines the problems restaurants face in being ranked, rated, tweeted and reviewed on social media

In communications terms, the world has changed. Fast-paced technological developments and the breathtaking evolution of social media means our every action is under scrutiny. Multiple social media sites, portals and 24-hour availability means that for individuals and businesses alike, there is the opportunity at every turn to be ranked, rated, tweeted and reviewed.

For businesses, the proliferation of online review sites like TripAdvisor or Yelp remains a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they allow companies to engage with their customers, learn from feedback and enter into a positive dialogue. Indeed, ultimately, good quality reviews can equate to a better reputation and more bookings, and research has shown that companies who engage with guests online gain a more positive reputation as well as increased numbers of reviews.

It may seem strange that I should be highly critical of TripAdvisor in particular, as both my restaurants gained their Certificate of Excellence in 2013, but it is my strong belief that it has many faults and there is little redress for restaurateurs.

I have suffered personally from malicious attacks on the internet, most enterprisingly, two fake newspaper sites, for The Telegraph and The Evening Standard, were created specifically to give false impressions of the quality of my two restaurants. It much easier to register with an online review site and post similar smears.

Unfortunately, the site owners hide behind American law and, even when you have proved to them that a review is malicious, they will not provide any information about the reviewer.

Online review sites should provide some simple guidelines for reviewers. For instance, we have had excellent reviews, and then only been given three or four stars. On asking the reviewer why, you get an answer like, "we only give five stars to Michelin-starred restaurants" or "I only give five stars for exceptional". When I review, I give five stars to places that have met or exceeded my expectations.

One particularly reprehensible practice is to allow reviewers to allege food poisoning or sickness without any medical proof. This can cause immense harm to a restaurant's reputation.

Other ill-informed reviewers will claim that vegetables are frozen, or that the mash is instant, when all our food is freshly prepared.

Meanwhile, every table in my restaurants is asked if they have enjoyed their meal.

Occasionally they will answer positively and then go home to berate us on an online site.

If people answer dishonestly when we ask for feedback at the table, we have no chance to recover the situation.

There is a further very sad knock-on effect to our industry members, some of whom resort to posting negative reviews of their competition instead of spending their time and energy in trying to top the rankings by improving their own offering.

All these factors contribute to sites like TripAdvisor being an unreliable guide to quality. My wife and I went to Playa del Carmen on holiday and tried to book the restaurant that was highly rated on TripAdvisor. When we dined there, we suffered quite the worst meal of our whole holiday. I had a dreadful mussel dish made from frozen, precooked mussels, and we both had lobster curries containing extruded white fish rings. Yet our best meal was in a restaurant rated 16th on TripAdvisor.

I have been urging the British Hospitality Association and Restaurant Association to support members on the issues outlined for some time as it is hard for an individual
company to make their voice heard or get a matter resolved.

It is almost impossible to contact an actual person at either TripAdvisor or Yelp to ask them to look into specific concerns.

Like it or not, online review sites are here to stay and the information and feedback they provide has a direct correlation with customer satisfaction. But better interaction between business, the sites and reviewers is required. Hotel and restaurant owners who value the reputation of their business must embrace all aspects of the media, both online and offline.

By working together as an industry, we can help to support the open and honest dialogue, opinions and feedback which make sites like this so invaluable.

Richard, Earl of Bradford Chairman of The Restaurant Association, part of the British Hospitality Association, and owner of Porters English Restaurant and Covent Garden Grill

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