fake_reviewsWhile all businesses must concern themselves with the impact of online reviews, restaurants have to be particularly concerned. Food criticism isn’t a new trend as it has been going strong since the 1803 publication of the “L’Almanach des gourmands.” Today, technology has democratized the reviewing of restaurant’s making true the old quip “everyone’s a critic.”

Many of the restaurants we work with have developed some process for responding to online reviews. Some restauranteurs approach online reviews as an opportunity to build customer loyalty and ensure they are delivering on their brand promises. Others recognize the reviews as a necessary part of modern business. There are even a few who detest online reviews altogether and believe that they do more harm than good.

One thing that everyone seems to agree on is the frustration of dealing with ‘fake reviews.’ Much like the increasing conversation around ‘fake news,’ ‘fake reviews’ is a topic popularly unpopular amongst restauranteurs. ‘Fake reviews’ can cause real damage to a restaurant’s reputation and cannot be avoided. Restaurants must enact procedures to recognize and deal with ‘fake reviews’ when they occur.

The dangers of false reviews

In today’s world, online reviews are an important factor for any restaurant as ratings can directly impact their bottom line. A study conducted by the Harvard Business School discovered that every incremental rating star earned on Yelp translated to a 5% to 9% effect on revenue. Restaurant owners, especially in smaller cities, can attest that one or two bad reviews on Yelp can “kill their business.”

Despite the fact that fake reviews violate the posting guidelines of most all review websites, combating them is a continuing struggle for both the operators of the review websites and the restaurants subjected to them. Here is an excerpt from Google’s Review Posting Guidelines that deals with “off-topic reviews.”

“Off-topic reviews: Don’t post reviews based on someone else’s experience, or that are not about the specific place you’re reviewing. Reviews aren’t meant to be a forum for general political or social commentary or personal rants. Wrong location or the place is closed? Use the Report a problem link to report that information instead of writing a review.”

Types of fake reviews

Although it may not be apparent, fake reviews are created for different reasons. Understanding the source of a fake review can help determine the best way to deal with it. We like to distinguish between these types of fake reviews.

  1. The Competitor: The competitive reviewer is motivated to support a competitor. These can be the result of a competitor or their employees seeking to harm your business or could simply be a disgruntled former customer attempting to drive business to a competitor. The goals are the same, to take business from you and drive it to a competitor.
  2. The Activist: The activist reviewer is motivated by an experience other than dining in your restaurant. These reviewers often react to an event publicized in traditional or social media that simply strikes them as wrong. Unfortunately, this form of attack is becoming more common. You don’t have to think hard to find some well-known examples of this phenomena whether it was a bakery attacked for refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding, or Starbucks being attacked for their pledge to hire 10,000 migrants.
  3. The Entertainer: The entertainment reviewer is motivated by enjoyment in crafting an entertaining review that elicits social sharing and discussion. These reviewers often compete amongst themselves as to who can craft the most entertaining review. A good example would be the reviews left for a Banana Slicer product on Amazon.com.
  4. The Confused: The confused reviewer may have had a poor experience, just not at your restaurant. This reviewer may be leaving a review for a similar name restaurant, sometimes in another part of the country.
  5. The Third Party: The third-party reviewer leaves a review on behalf of someone else’s experience. Think of the reviewer who leaves a review because their friend claimed to have had a bad experience.
  6. The Professional: The professional reviewer is paid to leave either positive or negative review. These reviews are often purchased from sites such as fivr.com, or other sites that recruit people to amass reviews for restaurants and other establishments.
  7. The Malicious: The malicious reviewer is motivated by the desire to wreak havoc and ruin someone’s day.  To quote Alfred from the Batman movie, “Some people just like to watch the world burn.”
  8. The Bot: The robotic review is not left by a person at all, but by a piece of software called a bot. Forbes recently published an article describing how the University of Chicago taught a neural network to write reviews that were indiscernible from a human review. As these technologies improve, they may further complicate the process of authenticating reviews.

Recognizing fake reviews

Some fake reviews are difficult to recognize because they contain no information other than a star rating. Since you have little information about the reason for the review, there is little you or the review sites can do to determine if it is fake. In these cases, we recommend responding to the review with a request for more information. Be both polite and professional. Even if they do not respond, others will see your genuine attempt to uncover the issue behind the review.

Setting up a social monitoring service can also help you find fake reviews. This is especially useful when the fake reviews are the result of a smear campaign initiated on social media such as those left by activist reviewers. We have seen restaurants receive hundreds of one-star reviews after voicing an unpopular political opinion. By monitoring mentions of your restaurant, you may uncover that your restaurant is the victim of such a campaign. If you find this to be the case, we suggest that you document everything and share it with the review site. Unfortunately, our experience has been that the review sites are slow to respond – if they respond at all.

Dealing with fake reviews

So what is the best procedure for handling complaints that are falsified? The correct answer will be based on the nature of the complaint itself.

The first thing to do is to remain calm and ensure that neither you nor your employees make the situation worse by attacking the reviewer and getting embroiled in a “flame war.”

Identify how severe the situation is. Are you receiving one or two negative reviews, or are you the subject of a smear campaign in which you are receiving hundreds of negative reviews in a small time period?

The next thing to do is to seek more information. Demonstrate that you care about your customers by asking each reviewer to contact you (through a different channel) and provide more details so that you can better serve them. This step often helps separate fake reviewers from real ones, as someone who has not visited your restaurant is less likely to reply with any details.

If you believe that you are the subject of a smear campaign, alert the review websites. In our experience, this doesn’t often lead to any resolution, but it doesn’t hurt.

Here is Google’s statement on flagging reviews:

“Google doesn’t get involved when merchants and customers disagree about facts since there’s no reliable way to discern who’s right about a particular customer experience. Read the policy before flagging a review.”

If your situation calls for it, some public relations could help. By acknowledging the situation for what it is and sticking to the facts, you force detractors to either dispute the facts or ignore them. Your website’s blog is a good place to tell your side of the story, and it allows you to control your message.

Can I report a false or unfair review of my business?

Although all review websites provide a means to report a review, our experience is that nothing will be done unless the review itself violates the sites usage guidelines (i.e., contains threatening language.)

However, if you wish to try and have a review site consider your case you can use the following links.

Can I sue fake reviewers?

Although you are within your rights to call in your attorney, the anonymity of the internet makes it difficult to pursue legal action. However, if the reviewer is a former employee, you may be able to have them remove their posts by threatening legal action.

Now is the time to ensure that your restaurant is represented fairly and accurately online. You owe it to your employees, yourself, and your customers. Contact the reputation management team and digital marketing specialists at Absolute today.