You want to try out a new restaurant tonight, but aren't sure where to go. Unfortunately, all the conflicting opinions about local eateries that you've read online don't make your decision any easier.
Someone named Anna G. says the bistro down the street is infested with cockroaches and the food there is inferior to the restaurant a couple doors down. Yet another reviewer who goes by the name Charlie M. says that same bistro has the best steak frites in town and gives it an enthusiastic five stars.
With user-generated review sites such as Yelp, Chowhound, OpenTable, Zagat and Urbanspoon, anyone can be a restaurant critic. But when that also means restaurant owners, competitors and disgruntled former staff can weigh in under the guise of impartial diners, how can you weed out the dishonest reviews from the legitimate ones?
The credibility of user-generated reviews came under scrutiny this summer when Grahamwich, the much-awaited gourmet sandwich shop of renowned Chicago chef Graham Elliot Bowles, received an abysmal one-star rating on Yelp. It wasn't so much the bad grade that sparked outcry on food discussion boards and social networking sites, as the fact that the restaurant hadn't opened yet.
"Amazing!" Mr. Bowles said on Twitter. "There is already a negative review of Grahamwich posted on Yelp even though we've yet to open. Further proves my point …"
He later elaborated in an interview with the website Eater: "The fact that someone has the ability to openly critique a business that has yet to open, leads me to question the legitimacy of the reviews involving businesses that are in actual operation."
Some Yelp users also took exception to the premature rating.
"Once it's out there, it's out there and … [people will]see the one star review and assume there's a problem with the place," one Yelp forum member wrote under the name Chris S.
"This entire site should be taken with a grain of salt," added another, giving the name Matty "The Soothing Rocker" G.
Stephanie Ichinose, director of communications for Yelp, acknowledges that pre-emptive reviewing "does occur," but says such online chatter ahead of an opening is a testament to the freshness of the site's content.
"But what it also means is that we also have to have … review guidelines that help mitigate against the abuse of Yelp," she adds. She says Yelp uses an automated software system to screen for abuse and removes reviews it deems inappropriate.
At Chowhound, community manager Jacquilynne Schlesier says site moderators identify and take down dubious user reviews on a regular basis. "I'd say it's a multiple times a day occurrence."
Negative reviews penned by competing restaurants are rare, but dishonest criticism generally comes from revenge-seeking former employees, she says. More common are shill reviews, from restaurant chefs or owners pretending to be their own customers, or from friends or family members trying to "help" the business, she says. Ms. Schlesier has seen chefs' mothers post favourable comments about their children's restaurants without the chefs' knowledge.
Other businesses use the review space to flat-out advertise, "which is at least easier to detect," she says.
But sometimes suspicious reviews can turn out to be legitimate. "I mean, some people are just really enthusiastic," she says.