The Dilution of Online Reviews

Once upon a time there was an idea for an online site where everyday people could go and write reviews about their favorite restaurant. Sounds like a great idea, right? And it was for a while. People seem to enjoy getting online and checking out reviews of their favorite restaurants or to research potential dining venues.

Enter Social Proof and Greed

A study from UC Berkeley took a look at 148,000 Yelp reviews from 328 San Francisco restaurants and found out that an extra half star rating causes the restaurant to sell out 19 percent more frequently. Another study at Harvard Business School showed that a one-star increase in Yelp ratings leads to a five-to-nine percent increase in revenue!

What is happening here is what psychologists call a phenomenon known as social proof. Now social proof has been around as long as humans have been trying to sell things to others. It’s the testimonials and the referrals. It’s the toothpaste ad that you see on TV saying that four out of five dentists recommend this brand. Con men and snake-oil salesman are fond of the saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Years ago referrals and recommendations were very personal via word-of-mouth. A family member to another family member. Neighbor to neighbor. Coworker to coworker. Then, social media came into our lives and in an instant we went from word-of-mouth to world-of-mouth with a simple push of a button on a smart phone, tablet, or computer.

A 2013 study showed that 79 percent of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations; 85 percent of consumers say they read online reviews for local businesses. Face it, your business is being stalked.

Social proof gives your customers reassurance that they are making the right decision going to your establishment. The problem comes from the fact that restaurant owners now know this. When business is good, you have a different mindset from when business is bad.

Human Needs Theory

There are basically six human needs we all have:

Certainty, Uncertainty, Significance, Love and Connection, Growth, Contribution

The first two (certainty and uncertainty) are major players in the mindset of the restaurant owner and operator. People go out of their way to either gain pleasure or avoid pain. It’s basic human nature. When we get into a mindset of uncertainty, a nasty little emotion likes to come and visit us… It’s called fear.

Fear does wreak havoc on a restaurant owner’s psychology. Since we know that social proof on online reviews can help drive business, fear is the mind killer, and we want to get from uncertainty to certainty what is an owner to do? Unfortunately, many turn to what is known as “gaming.” That’s where the owners and managers solicit fake reviews.

The problem with fake reviews is that eventually the truth will be revealed through the food and service. You might be able to hide those things online, but the truth will emerge and usually with a vengeance. Bad Karma is not the energy you want in your business.

Recently, there has been a disturbing trend in giving away “free meals” in exchange for a positive online review. While on the surface this might seem like a great way to garner positive feedback, it actually has come back on the restaurant like the aforementioned karma. When people feel duped, they tend to lash out rather harshly.

Lashing Out

What started out as a brilliant idea has become more of a diluted dream. Now disgruntled diners and ex-employees lash out verbal attacks on the restaurants that did not live up to their expectations. Slander seems to be his own currency that some patrons use to even blackmail restaurant owners and operators for complimentary meals or risk the wrath of a scathing online review.

There’s the one extreme of owners “gaming” to gather fake online reviews which may falsely be perceiving their brand to bring in unsuspecting diners like a butterfly lured into a spider’s web. To the other extreme of self-entitled, rude, and high maintenance patrons looking for something free in exchange for not posting a bad review, there’s something in a middle. That’s the real patron who dines in a restaurant and gives honest sincere feedback about the experience they had.

The Best Defense is a Good Offense

There’s an old saying, “better the devil you know that the devil you don’t.” In the restaurant industry that could be translated into focus on improving your food and service every day. You know what you can do. Focus on becoming world-class. Not world-class in the sense of being at the top of the Zagat Survey or receiving awards. World-class is a mindset. It means being the best that you can be. Maximizing the potential of your restaurant and your staff. When you focus on what you do best and keep refining that process every day, you’ll see that the online reviews you receive are a true reflection of honest effort you put in.