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East Anglian businesses speak out against malicious reviews on TripAdvisor

PUBLISHED: 16:09 11 October 2019 | UPDATED: 16:17 11 October 2019

Anyone can write a review for online sites but should they be better regulated?  Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Anyone can write a review for online sites but should they be better regulated? Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

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Is the review platform still serving the purpose it set out for or is it becoming a sounding board for those with alternative motives. We speak to four business owners who've been negatively impacted by the site.

Foodies, have you heard of The Shed in Dulwich? No? Shame on you. Back in 2017 it clawed its way past culinary giants to become the top rated restaurant in London on TripAdvisor.

There's just one problem. It didn't really exist. The concept, conceived by journalist Oobah Butler, who had previously been paid by businesses to leave good/bad reviews on the site, made a fool not only of the online platform, but of customers who were entranced by fake write-ups, and a website showing dishes comprised of such delights as bleach tablets and shaving foam.

The 'prank' while absolutely hilarious, can also be seen as a bold piece of commentary on the power social media and review sites can wield. It's worrying how easily paying members of the public can be led. How gullible even the best of us can be.

Founded nearly 20 years ago, few could have predicted at the turn of the Millennium how influential TripAdvisor would go on to become. For millions of hotel, restaurant and attraction visitors the site acts as a barometer against which they weigh their every movement. Sounds like a great idea. But in practice TripAdvisor cannot admit to being infallible. For every few thousands positive reviews laid at businesses' doors, there are those dreaded one and two star daggers.

Galton Blackiston. Picture: Courtesy of Morston HallGalton Blackiston. Picture: Courtesy of Morston Hall

How much can we really rely on the advice of our peers? While I regularly write reviews of food outlets in the course of my work, I am bound by journalistic integrity and strict codes of conduct. But there's nothing to stop the average Joe Bloggs making spurious claims against a pub, shop, restaurant or café using online review sites. We have no idea what the motives of these people are. A spawned colleague. A jealous competitor. Or, worse, a customer who couldn't book a table and thus leaves a one star review because they couldn't get in!

I'm equally cynical of glowing five star reviews - particularly where they don't follow the pattern left by other customers, or where it's the sole review of the avatar leaving the comment.

In essence, these sites can be a quagmire. But, being the largest, it's TripAdvisor which takes the bulk of the blame from the food and drink industry for seemingly allowing alleged falsehoods, ones they say are damaging, to be published without account.

Perhaps the most famous face to speak out recently has been Galton Blackiston, who just celebrated 21 years of holding one Michelin star with wife Tracey at their north Norfolk hotel and restaurant Morston Hall.

Mark Kacary from the Norfolk Deli in Hunstanton. Picture: Matthew Usher.Mark Kacary from the Norfolk Deli in Hunstanton. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Galton is an affable chap, but even he could not hold his tongue against vitriol directed towards his team in September. A guest, on TripAdvisor, alleged at first the restaurant told them dietary requirements could not be met, and proceeded to explain how, after telling Morston they had a dairy intolerance, they were left disappointed when butter and cheese were substituted out of their meal.

There have been a few heavily publicised reports this year of deaths caused by food allergies. Readers may recall the case of 18-year-old Owen Carey, who died after eating a Byron Burger containing traces of milk. It's no wonder restaurants, like Galton's, are paying more heed than ever before to dietary requirements.

"I was furious," Galton says of the review. "We absolutely cater for dietary requirements and for someone to say we don't annoys me. When we hear 'intolerance' or 'allergy' in this industry our ears totally prick up, because we've never been in a position where we have to be so aware.

"These people become far and away the most important in the restaurant, and dairy allergies are the hardest. We need to be totally aware. But when someone says they are dairy intolerant but happen to eat butter and cheese, I am on the kitchen's side saying 'don't risk it'. I could be sued. It's a zero tolerance thing for me and I'm paranoid about these things. If someone's dairy intolerant how can I give them milk or cheese? And how can you criticise me for not giving you these things?"

While Galton believes there is still a place for review platforms like TripAdvisor, he is adamant they should be better regulated to guard businesses against false reviews made by disgruntled customers and rivals -something he (and others who have contacted me) says is rife in the industry in his opinion.

"I don't regret speaking out. I'm saying what a lot of hoteliers are saying. Anyone can have family members or staff members write a fake review. We had someone come to No1 in Cromer and because it was closed they gave us one star. They could have flipping looked at the opening and closing times. That's what gets me. It [TripAdvisor} serves a purpose, don't get me wrong. Quite a lot of reviews are helpful, whether criticising or glowingly positive, but the present situation is they are untouchable. Every single establishment would have a story to tell about TripAdvisor!"

Galton is certainly not alone, and multiple restaurant owners and chefs got in touch after his plight to offer their sympathies to him, and to share their own tales. Some of them follow and their key message is this: review sites need to be more responsive to businesses. Measures to stop fake reviews need to be more robust. And, most importantly, customers need to take what they read with a good old fashioned pinch of salt.

Brendan Padfield, owner of multi-award-winning The Unruly Pig in Bromeswell

Brendan has been burnt by users of online review platforms many times, saying the 'trolls' come out almost every time they add an accolade to the pub's name.

He had three points to make.

1. Those with the best listings are too often not what the critics consider to be anywhere near the best.

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2. The one millions reviews that TripAdvisor admit to be fake each year are, in my own experience, the tip f the iceberg. I know of a chain that pays one hour's overtime to trash the opposition and/or praise their own establishment.

3. I have an average of two blackmail threats per year. With one partially corroborated blackmail attempt I ended up speaking with the general counsel/legal department of TripAdvisor who said unless I could wholly disprove what was written with written evidence they would publish regardless.

Mark Kacary, owner of The Norfolk Deli in Hunstanton

"We know what it [being targeted by negative reviews] feels like as we have been experiencing this for the last five years! We'd like to say we know the source of the hatred shown towards us, but due to the way in which users are allowed to remain anonymous, you can suspect but nothing else.

"The business offering a review service should make every aspect of their business transparent. After all, a restaurant, hotel or shop like ours doesn't hide behind a hidden identity. So why are people allowed to create a persona if for no other reason than to vindicate the use of personal attacks, and to deliberately say something in the hope that it discourages people from going there? Comments used like "avoid" and "I'm never going there ever again and neither should you" are clear in their intentions.

"One answer would be to only allow one account per person requiring validation through the use of a form of identity. This, more than anything, is likely to moderate the style of reviews written. People feel braver if they can sit behind a computer screen with a false identity.

"We'd also say that anybody writing a review should provide some evidence that they've even visited wherever they're reviewing. This would hopefully prevent anybody from maliciously making up a review.

"What most people probably don't appreciate is that whilst it's lovely to get good reviews, they enter your head as a 'that was nice of them', but what stills in your mind forever, giving you sleepless nights as you mentally compose your response, are the hurtful and totally unjustified reviews.

"We don't advertise now that we're on TripAdvisor. We've removed three Certificate of Excellence awards and even through we'll be opening a café in a few weeks we will be doing our best to ensure that it stays delisted from TripAdvisor!"

Peter Gwizdala owner of Arlingtons in Ipswich

"One thing which still strikes dread into our bones is the TripAdvisor or Google review. It's not that we fear criticism, on the contrary we welcome it. The more the merrier. But would customers please have the courage to do it to our faces and be truthful? We won't be embarrassed and you won't be made to feel foolish either.

"Reviews fall into one of three categories. Fair (in person or online) where something might have gone wrong and we will always do our best to put it right. Unfair or malicious (usually online), ranging from someone who said the salmon was uncooked (it is cured not cooked) to others who simply and quite obviously have not visited the premises. And blaggers. These follow a pattern. They order three dishes, eat two of them and complain about the third. They then threaten an adverse review on TripAdvisor when we refuse to give them something off the bill. We never give something off the bill when the customer simply doesn't like the food, and certainly not when they threaten us, although in certain circumstances we may offer an alternative.

"We had one person make quite a vitriolic complaint about the bacon in their breakfast (fresh in that morning). On the same day the EHO visited and gave us a five star hygiene rating with zero comments. Another complained there were no prawns in the shells. It was only when we checked the order we discovered they had ordered mussels, so it was hardly surprising there were no prawns.

"We bend over backwards (and further) to provide the highest standards of food and service. It is such a shame that customers berate us for over or undercooking a chip. We do recommend counselling if they've suffered any stress from it and obviously apologise for ruining their lives. And the customer who complained their chips were not the thin crispy ones which he normally gets elsewhere, but were mis-shapen (hand cut, triple cooked) was also the same one who complained the play they went to see (Hamlet) wasn't funny.

"TripAdvisor just seems to be there to allow people to get the stresses and strains of modern society off their chests. Most of our staff depend upon these jobs for their livelihoods, and are passionate about what they do, so get really upset when they receive an unfair review. So please tell them when they've done some good!"

TripAdvisor says

"We firmly believe in the travel community's right to write about their genuine experiences - positive or negative - even if the business disagrees with that reviewer's opinion. The right to write is one of the key principles TripAdvisor was built on, as well as to promote transparency in the hospitality industry and to level the playing field for businesses large and small. By staying true to these principles, we believe we have had a positive impact on the hospitality industry over the course of the last two decades. We do however think it is fair to give establishments a voice as well, this is why we have the management response tool, a free service which ultimately gives the business owner the last word for each and every review on the site. We strongly encourage owners to make use of this tool."

"It is also worth noting that consumers do not rely on one review in isolation. Studies show that most TripAdvisor users call upon the full weight of opinion about a business, not the views of just one or two reviewers. The volume of reviews on TripAdvisor ensures that the impact of any one review is minimal."



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