Five stars … or sucks harder than a Dyson?

by Scott Douglas

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

Scott Douglas questions the fairness behind restaurant and product reviews customers now feel compelled to leaveA version of this post first appeared in the Daily Record’s Edinburgh Now supplement 

There was a time when reviews were only enough to make or break West End shows, the latest cinema releases or restaurants pricey enough to deserve the attention.

Back then a review was a carefully thought out piece of work from a recognised tastemaker; someone seen as an arbiter of quality in a narrow niche.

The biggest name food critics could help a new restaurant flourish with some honeyed words, or leave a chef’s overblown reputation collapsed like an inferior souffle.

What few people cared about was what kind of car the critic drove to the restaurant or the choice of breath mints he or she used after a meal.

Nor would the average reader (since most of those reviewers wrote for magazines or newspapers) decide what model of new TV to buy on the advice of a theatre reviewer, or book a holiday on the strength of recommendation from a movie critic.

Now, of course, anybody with access to the internet is an instant expert. We are urged to leave tips, feedback and recommendations on everything and anything.

Just how far this obsession has stretched struck me over the weekend while shopping with my better half. As I browsed for rechargeable batteries in an Edinburgh department store a smart phone was used to scan the barcode and voila, a world of online reviews opened up.

Apparently hundreds of ordinary people have the time and inclination to go online and give detailed musings about the performance and merits of rechargeable battery brands. Who are these armchair adventurers in the art of the critique? What motivates them to wield their virtual pens in laboured judgement of humble AAs?

No doubt there are times when the opinion of the masses is useful. When this endless sea of crowd sourced opinion can genuinely help others to make a more informed choice or decision.

The ratings given to both buyers and sellers on Amazon or eBay are useful and help ensure few of us are duped by online con artists. Study after study has shown that as customers and consumers we feel empowered by the views, opinions and recommendations of other “people like us”.

Problem though. Ask just about anyone in the pub or hotel trade about reviews and two recurring themes emerge.

Firstly, it is beyond doubt that online buzz is now a crucial business driver, which should be great news for rewarding those venues committed to excellence, while encouraging others to try harder.

Except that there is an ugly flip face to that review coin – those same venues also live in fear of malicious and intentionally harmful reviews and almost all report suspicions that their most negative reviews – or overly glowing praise for their rivals – have the distinct whiff off chicanery about them.

Legal Ramifications

Little surprise, since boffins have estimated that for restaurants a one star increase in reviews can deliver a  5-9% uplift in business. With the stakes so high, authorities in the US have resorted to extreme legal measures.

The New York State Attorney General’s office recently completed a year-long undercover investigation into the problem. It ended with 19 companies being fined a total of $350,000 after paying people in the Far East, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe to churn out bogus positive reviews for businesses needing a buff up for their reputations.

In the clever parlance of the internet this practice is known as “astroturfing”, because it is an attempt to fake grassroots feedback. It happens with online book reviews, political campaigns and any number of businesses.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman cut through the clever wordplay saying: “Large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution.”

Anyone who thinks this is purely an American problem is deluding themselves. A quick search online yields forums full of specifically Scottish horror stories.

So when it comes to the so-called “wisdom of the crowds”, perhaps it is only really useful as a barometer when it veers overwhelmingly one way or another.

Otherwise navigating online reviews can feel like floundering in a sea of anonymous opinion, hidden agendas and outright fakery, often more hassle than it’s worth.

Unfashionable as it may sound in a world of overpowering pressure to follow peer recommendations, I’ve never put greater faith in the words of professional critics.

You might say it’s an approach I can’t recommend highly enough.

Scott Douglas, of public relations agency Holyrood PR in Scotland

Scott Douglas

Scott Douglas is the co-founder of the multi award-winning Holyrood Partnership, renowned public relations agency in Edinburgh, Scotland.
As well as providing expert PR services in Scotland and the UK, the former journalist heads a team which offers a host of other professional media services.
Those include crisis management PR, photography for business PR, affordable business video, social media campaigns and strategic content planning and delivery for businesses of all sizes.

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