TripAdvisor, Yelp, and other review sites are the bugbear of many small restaurant owners. When anyone from your nan to that self-proclaimed "total foodie" friend can turn their hand to critiquing local caffs or Michelin-starred restaurants, it's impossible to trust what you read.
Chef Gary Usher has had enough of the free-for-all world of online restaurant criticism. Earlier this week, he submitted a phony review of his Chester restaurant Sticky Walnut to TripAdvisor, aiming to highlight the failings of the system.
The screenshot Usher tweeted to show the review sees him pose as a diner describing a recent visit to Sticky Walnut. He claims that "the manager came over & ate my dawg I was so annoyed I got up on the table & painted the ceiling with my fingers which are made out of paint brushes."
Standard night out, no?
Just to make it painfully clear that the review was in fact paint, Usher concluded his description of his Sticky Walnut experience with: "Although I own sticky walnut & im [sic] just writing this to show you what a bunch of weapons twit advisor are I still expect the owner to invite my back for a free meal."
The tweet from Usher was soon retweeted, praised by hospitality industry professionals as well as restaurant critics Jay Rayner and Marina O'Loughlin for questioning the legitimacy of user-submitted review sites.
It's not the first time TripAdvisor's review verification process has been called into question. Last year the Competitions and Markets Authority launched an investigation into online reviews and endorsements, and Usher himself has had previous run-ins with TripAdvisor admins. He tells MUNCHIES that the fight against misleading online restaurant reviews is an ongoing battle.
"We've had a thing with TripAdvisor for the last five years. It's such bullshit that anyone can post," Usher says. "If someone writes something about how they genuinely didn't like the food, I'm gutted, but it's the people who complain about the pine furniture or disrespect staff and name them who need to get a fucking grip."
Despite applause from the Twitter community, at the time of the writing, Usher's fake review hadn't actually been published by TripAdvisor, as it was yet to undergo the site's screening process. However Usher's personal profile on the site was awarded 200 "points" and a badge, which is TripAdvisor's system of "displaying knowledge and expertise." Reviewers can also earn badges "in recognition of how helpful or useful your review or photo has been."
A spokesperson for TripAdvisor told MUNCHIES that Usher's post won't be approved for publishing and that the site has measures in place to stop false reviews. In a statement via email, they added: "Every single review goes through our tracking system, which maps the how, what, where, and when of each review. We back that up with a team of over 300 content specialists using fraud detection techniques similar to those used in the banking sector."
Of those 200 shiny bonus points awarded to Usher's account, they added: "We can confirm that TripCollective points are systematically awarded following submission of a review. However, if a review is not subsequently published, the points are removed."
By not having his Sticky Walnut review pass the TripAdvisor screening process, it seems Usher will lose his precious points (we're sure he's devastated). The chef has his own ideas about why he won't become reviewer of the year, though.
"The only reason this review won't get published is because I tweeted about it," he says. "All I'd have to do is set up an email address and join TripAdvisor to get another one posted. I just wanted to show how bullshit it is."
So, next time you're browsing online restaurant reviews, it's probably best not to base the gaff entirely on Dave from Grimsby's moonlighting career as a food critic.