Many internet reviews are bogus – are you honestly surprised?
As someone who has never left a TripAdvisor or Amazon review and yet reads them religiously in the same way I do internet comments (out loud, in front of assembled friends and family members, in a shrill pantomime voice), I was unsurprised by the news that a significant proportion of these online reviews turn out to be bogus. Indeed, it would be impossible for any person to believe otherwise, especially anyone who has, perhaps one solitary Sunday following a heavy weekend, encountered the words: “After buying this laxative tea I lost 20lb in two weeks without changing any of my normal eating or exercise habits”, only to have made an immediate purchase of four boxes. I’m not saying this was me, just that if this happens to you, make sure that you’re near a lavatory at all times.
But if you did need it, confirmation of the meretricious nature of many online reviews came this week in the form of an unnamed Frenchman who wrote anexcoriating review of the Michelin-starred Loiseau Des Ducs restaurant in Dijon five days before the restaurant had even opened its doors. “Very overrated,” he wrote, on PagesJaunes. “It was all show, there was very little on the plate, and the only thing that was well loaded was the bill.” Impressively, the restaurant was so irked by this that it reportedly shelled out €5,000 to track the guy down, and he, as well as being forced to cover its costs, has now been fined €2,768.
As Amazon takes its fake reviewers to court, I wonder: does anyone trust online reviews anymore? Some might argue that they represent the democratisation of the marketplace – finally, the humble consumer has a voice that they can use against powerful, scurrilous corporations. But small businesses can be made or broken by online reviews, and not all of them have the resources to pursue the dishonest or libellous. In a sign of how anxious some hotel owners are to avoid negative feedback (and how little they understand the concept of freedom of speech), a hotel in Blackpool even tried charging a couple £100 for a bad reviewlast year. Some hotel owners, meanwhile, have taken to the message boards to retaliate. “You have ruined me! You have set my therapy back some six months,” wrote hotel owner Alex Scrivenor in response to a negative review. “You have stripped me of my greatest strength … my compassion … I will be, forever, a ‘Basil’.”
Reviews can be useful, of course, especially when it comes to tourist destinations and “experience” products that you really need to try out before you can tell how lousy they are. If there are 35 traveller photos of cockroaches in the honeymoon suite then you would be wise to avoid it, in the same way as if other people are saying “these trainers fall apart after the first 5k” you’d purchase a different pair. But with some studies suggesting that up to 30% of online product reviews are fake, how do you know which to believe? And, while hotel and restaurant reviews are considered to be only 10-20% fake, you still have to make your mind up between the reviews written by het-up Americans ranting about towels and the ones that say “Ignore all the negative reviews – this place is amazing”.
Yes, sifting through the hype and the snipe in search of a truth usually residing somewhere in the middle ground is a perennial challenge. In a potent example of first world problems, it even emerged earlier this year that bad restaurant reviewsuse the language of trauma victims when retrospectively describing their experience. When you read reviews, opinions are usually polarised between the furious guests who wanted butter, not margarine on their room service BLT and declared the receptionist “the angriest, most incompetent man we’ve ever met”, and the travel blogger who received three nights’ stay free of charge who waxes lyrical about the power shower and how the memory foam is like sleeping on a cloud made from the spun pubic hair of unicorns.
Indeed, last month New York Times critic Pete Wells argued in a review of a pizza place that the over-hyping of restaurants stops their now-complacent owners from solving any problems. The real killer, he wrote, is “a small group of people like me … whose premature praise and willingness to play down discomfort and inconvenience enable problems like Bruno’s”. (Incidentally, peaches on a pizza? Really, America?)
Which is why, as PR language and methods increasingly bleed into our online interactions, and dissatisfied customers seek revenge against the restaurants that have done them wrong, it’s time to turn our backs on internet reviews altogether. Yes, they can be funny (see Veet for Men) but there’s more to life than ranting about the time the rude manager at Holloway Wetherspoons yelled at you when you complained that one of the vital ingredients in a Philly cheesesteak is, er … cheese (thanks for ruining my lunch though, mate). We don’t unquestioningly trust food or film critics, so why trust strangers on the internet?
And since when did we care what anyone else thought anyway? Why not be spontaneous, live a little, have an adventure? Rejoice in the unpredictability of life. Take control of your own destiny. If it all goes wrong, at least you’ll make a saving on the laxative tea.