It's a business born of the Internet to keep bad decisions, inappropriate behavior and just plain poor performance — whether true or false — from cyberstalking you forever.
For restaurateurs, the rise of sites like Yelp, Urbanspoon and TripAdvisor — with their invitations for comments and ratings — provide new challenges and strategies for how best to deal with customers, both in the restaurant and under the bright lights of the public online community.
The sheer magnitude of this new forum and the reviewer anonymity it entails raise questions about whether online reviews have the potential to be more harmful than helpful. According to Conrad Saam, marketing director of Urbanspoon, the Seattle site now houses 22 million reviews. He said of that 22 million, 80 percent are positive, 20 percent negative.
"We do not read every review before it posts but, having said that, there is an algorithmic and human element to data quality. We've become adept at identifying unnatural behavior and determining when things look fishy," he says. Once something has been identified as fishy, he adds, "We immediately pull things down. But there are absolutely false reviews still there, and I'm certain we've pulled down legitimate reviews."
Still, Saam thinks these online forums provide restaurants with invaluable new feedback loops. Seeing online reviews as marketing opportunities, he has advice for how restaurant owners should respond.
With negative online reviews, he says there are a couple of best practices: "The first is to own it, not to refute the claim. The second thing to do is to take it offline. The best people say things like this, 'Please call my office, my name is Bill and I want to make this right.' I believe (sites like Urbanspoon) have changed restaurateur behavior in the restaurants. Now they say, 'If you like our service, go online. If you don't like our service, please speak to us here.' "
Harold Seltzer, who owns two steakhouses and a sandwich cafe in the Tampa Bay area, has an even more refined strategy for dealing with online reviews.
"If it is a positive review, I would respond publicly. If it is a negative review and I felt the review had merit, then I'd respond privately. But if it's a negative review and I feel that the person is off base, I would want to respond publicly."
So overall, do online reviews hurt restaurant business?
Says Seltzer, "Not one iota. I insist on one manager in the dining room at all times, and they get customer feedback immediately. I strongly believe the best way to run a restaurant is to be present and to sweat all the details and be preoccupied with the happiness of customers. On balance, online reviews are fair. Except that they are subject to abuse."
Kevin Carter, a manager of public relations for TripAdvisor, says sites like his expend a great deal of energy to ferret out abuse.
"We have a number of methods to manage review integrity. It is systematically assessed by site tools, and the other method we use is our huge community, with more than 50 million monthly visitors. If they see something suspicious, they can report it. And businesses can report suspicious behavior through our management center."
Zack Gross, owner of Z Grille in St. Petersburg, thinks greater reviewer accountability would reduce abuse. He suggests reviewers be required to post their receipt, verifying the date and details of a particular restaurant visit. He points to reviewer sites like those of Rewards Network, which require reviewers to have actually eaten in the restaurant.
"The Food Network and the cooking channels have made everyone into professional critics — because they watched Bobby Flay make a taco. People don't understand how hurtful online reviews can be, especially if they are lies. If you respond to lies, you look bad. And if you don't respond, you look like you don't care," Gross said.
Carter of TripAdvisor says responding is essential, because 70 percent of reviewers say that a response from management is important to them.
"It's hugely important for business owners to express their point of view in front of the community. It's important to state your side of the story, and the business ultimately gets the last word because travelers can't respond to the response. The tone is hugely important, making clear an honest effort has been made to address the concern."
Gross feels that there are some people who are going to be unhappy no matter what you do or say, and that often responding to a negative review is "adding fuel to the fire — and it stays online forever."
The "forever" part is something Seltzer thinks unfairly penalizes restaurants. He suggests review sites should list reviews in reverse chronological order (meaning, newest reviews at the top) and that there should be a statute of limitations, maybe two years, so a fledgling restaurant isn't penalized for its earliest, wobbly beginnings. Also, he feels it's important that review sites give owners the opportunity to respond both publicly and privately to positive and negative reviews, a mix he thinks is inevitable because, "a theater on Broadway does eight or nine shows a week, we do 3,000."
Regardless of their strategy for dealing with online reviews, most restaurateurs acknowledge they are here to stay, a part of the ongoing dialogue about what constitutes satisfying dining.
"There is a tendency to hate the medium, to lash out at the medium," says Urbanspoon's Saam, "which doesn't make sense. This is a free-speech issue. You have to understand that people are going to talk about your restaurant — at the water cooler, or at your kid's soccer game or on social media."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293.