It started with a retweet by Robb Walsh, a comment from Albert Nurick, a top 5 food blogger in Houston, to the effect that paid endorsements disguised as individual recommendations are pretty rampant in today’s world. The original article they referenced was written in terms of book reviews, but these two amended it to talk about commercially driven “individual” endorsements of restaurants.

Is this the philosophy of the paid restaurant endorser?

Some quotes from the original New York Times article sets the context plainly:

Reviews by ordinary people have become an essential mechanism for selling almost anything online; they are used for resorts, dermatologists, neighborhood restaurants, high-fashion boutiques, churches, parks, astrologers and healers — not to mention products like garbage pails, tweezers, spa slippers and cases for tablet computers. In many situations, these reviews are supplanting the marketing department, the press agent, advertisements, word of mouth and the professional critique.

But not just any kind of review will do. They have to be somewhere between enthusiastic and ecstatic.

and

Mr. Liu estimates that about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake.

So these pair of comments does set the stage for what I’m curious about. I’ve been harder on negative reviews, particularly insulting ones, but not as harsh on those that are positive. But when you encounter something, yes, somewhere between enthusiastic and ecstatic, and further, written by someone who sounds as if they could produce ad copy in their sleep, what should a third party (or a modest city wide food blogger) think of it?

I’ll note these kinds of discussions go on all the time in the blogging world. A completely over the top review in the wrong place, and yes, bloggers in their little private blogging forums will indeed make fun of the review. The most common fake is the one time reviewer. They appear once, they say something really good. They’re never heard from again. Others may post 2-3 times, and have one good review and two bad reviews. All the bad ones are of the favored restaurant’s competitors.

Ok, to pick on a review, we’ll choose this one by Robert Ingram from the site Thaicuisine. Bites is no longer with us, the owners sold their restaurants to others, who renamed it. Now, I liked Bites, ate there plenty of times, took out of town guests there to entertain, and thought it was really good. But was it really this good?

Robert Ingram – December 5th, 2004
“Outstanding Thai restaurant in Norcross. For a small, neighborhood Thai restaurant, this unpretentious, attractive place is worth the trip from anywhere in Atlanta. The food is absolutely amazing made with fresh ingredients and distinctive flavors. The starters like the spring rolls, chiken coconut soup and spicy beef salad are traditional and delicious. The curries are extremely well made no matter which one you choose(red,green,masaman). The Pad Thai is flavorful with very little oil and grease and the other entrees like the Duck Penang and Catfish are excellent. The dessert choices are off the charts and worth the visit just for the sticky rice with sweet mango or green tea ice cream. This is a great place for a delicious, quick and affordable lunch and a better place for dinner. The owners Eric and Tammy basically run the restaurant by themselves and make you feel at home. It is obvious that they take great pride in their restaurant and the experience you receive is always friendly and inviting. Regulars are treated like Thai royalty here! Tammy always greets you with a sincere smile and Eric makes sure you are satisfied with your food. I have been to many, many Thai restaurants in Atlanta including high end places in Midtown and Buckhead and Bites by a wide margin is the best Thai food I have ever had in this town. As a matter of fact, it is my favorite restaurant in Atlanta. Gwinnett County residents, you have a real jewel in Bites Thai Cuisine…take advantage of it, you’ll have the best Thai food you have ever tasted.”

So tell me, is it enthusiastic? Is it over the top? How many of these reviews (you can see similar toned reviews, though smaller, about Bites) mention the owners by name? Given what was said in the New York Times article, do you trust this review?

There are examples of this same kind of writing on this blog. I won’t point them out specifically, as I don’t want to play favorites. But when a pattern of reviews of this kind emerges, please hedge your bets. Trust someone who has a reputation, someone whose tastes you can measure. Or, as Albert Nurick said in a follow up tweet:

@FoodNSnellville @robbwalsh Shills get more and more clever. Best to build a list of reviewers you trust. Anon reviews have zero value.

I agree.

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