Lies, abuse and paid-for reviews: Paul Foster says TripAdvisor should rethink its approach

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 25th February 2019

Last week, Sticky Walnut owner Gary Usher took to Twitter after a customer left a bad review on the restaurant’s TripAdvisor page despite having left without paying.

TripAdvisor hasn’t failed to make the news recently: last year, it emerged that private firms were offering good review packages to restaurants, and let's not forget the man who managed to make his garden shed the best rated restaurant in London.

We spoke to Paul Foster, chef owner of Salt, who said he too had experienced the downside of TripAdvisor.

Recently, a situation with disgruntled customer, angry to have been charged for a late cancellation, led to an outpouring of fake Facebook and TripAdvisor reviews for his restaurant.

“I've managed to get the majority of them removed, there's still a couple floating about.”

“They shot up in a day or two - people who have never been to the restaurant posted reviews on TripAdvisor,” he said.

The problem with the way that TripAdvisor works, he explained, is that it takes a long time to get fake reviews removed. Their screening process involves checking that customers have indeed been to the restaurant, but this can take days.

Another way in which the TripAdvisor algorithm is regularly tricked is through paid-for reviews. Though he can’t prove it, he said it is easy to tell which restaurants do it, "just on the sheer volume." 

“There are restaurants around Warwickshire that have been open for five years and got like 4000 reviews. There are restaurants of the same size that've been open 15 years that've got about a thousand or one and a half thousand.

Footfall is a big part of what boosts you up the TripAdvisor algorithm, Paul said: “Even if we were getting all five stars, we’d never be at the top because we don’t get the volume of reviews.”

Though he refused to name names, he said, “I’ve looked at a selection, on the same street, targeting the same touristic customer, same sort of size, very similar sort of food, their market base is exactly the same.

“I couldn’t prove that and give it the time to actually look into it, but it does make you wonder.”

Bad reviews aren’t an issue in themselves, he said, but "the reason I do get wound up is because generally they’re lies and I know they’re lies and I can prove them, but TripAdvisor just won’t take them down." 

And although all bad reviews aren’t fake, some customers are emboldened by the indirect medium, and tend to exaggerate.

“I had someone that said they waited at the door for five minutes, which is not appropriate anywhere, so the first thing I did was to check CCTV, and it was 32 seconds.”

He told us that a customer at a friend’s restaurant even admitted having given them a lower score because, although he’d enjoyed his own meal, he’d seen other negative reviews and decided to adjust his own.

The bottom line is that leaving poor reviews doesn't benefit anyone, and communicating privately would be much better.

“I understand that people don’t like confrontation and feel uncomfortable about complaining - I totally get that. But if they approached me directly with an email, I would give them a much more structured and measured respectful response.”

“I get wound up because I get wound up, I’m annoyed that I’m annoyed about it.”

Sadly, there’s no obvious solution to the problem - it has been suggested that customers should have to be able to prove that they’ve been to the restaurant, but then there’s always the issue of restaurants adding their own using receipts that customers left behind.

“The deep-rooted problem with it is that it’s giving everybody a voice, and not everybody deserves a voice as far as I’m concerned.”

Of the 20,000 people they’ve catered for at Salt over the past two years, they have only received between 12 and 15 bad reviews.

“But there’s a reason these get highlighted, because they stand out. They’re generally written by self-important people delivering opinion as fact.”

Thankfully, he said, newspaper critics “still hold so much power, which I think they should, because they generally have a very balanced view.”

The hope, he said, is that just like food bloggers, the TripAdvisor era is just a phase.

“Most bloggers were illiterate, and because there were so many, there were only a few good ones like Elizabeth on Food, Andy Hayes and The Critical Couple. They were really good reviews, they knew their subject, they were never just outright slating people or being horrible, but because there were so many of them they just diluted their market.

"I think hopefully it will bounce back and people will trust those reviewers again.”

“People argue that it’s one person’s opinion but it’s a measured, well educated view of somebody who knows that subject and is totally impartial.”

Written by Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 25th February 2019

Lies, abuse and paid-for reviews: Paul Foster says TripAdvisor should rethink its approach