Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Anti-Social Restaurant Reviews

I go to a lot of restaurants. I'm lucky enough to know people in the business and they invite me to new places. But I still like to know what's new - and, quite often, where I might go, say, tonight that's new and that I might like.

The web is littered with restaurant reviews from sites such as opentable, toptable (and more). The reviews are written by people I don't know and, worse, I often don't know their background in reviewing any given restaurant.   For instance:

- do they go to a particular restaurant a lot and have never written a review but after one bad night, they've decided to unload their feelings?

- do they visit a lot of, say, french restaurants and so when they Le Poule Au Pot 10/10 I know that this is with good judgement?

- do they know a lot about the finer points of steak and so when they visit Goodman, I can trust what they say?

- are they the competition or a disgruntled former employee just dissing whoever they feel like?

The answer to those questions is that I have no idea.

As a random example, who had the experience nearest to normal from these two:

Incredibly poor service.We sat outdoors as it was a lovely day,only to be "lost" amongst the other customers.We were completely ignored, with our food orders only being taken 45 mins after arriving.They didn't have the sauvignon blanc we requested,only to bring us an alternative Chardonnay. Chardonnay isn't remotely similar to Sauvignon Blanc.After half 45 mins of trying to order wine, they finally brought out their sommelier to advise. An hour and a half after our arrival, the WRONG food order was brought to the table. Initially, the waitor [sic] excused their poor service on the chef not being happy with the quality of our food. Which proved a lie, after it transpired our order was simply not placed. V disappointed as I am a ---- ---- fan

or

It's not the first time I've been here and it won't be the last either. The food was fantastic and the service was as perfect as I could have hoped for. I'm one of the biggest complainers but couldn't find a single fault with this tremendous dining experience

That's two reviews submitted by people who ate there on the same day at the same service, and where both reviewers claim to be fans of the restaurant.

Of course you can look at the trends in reviews but what I really want to know is does someone I know, who I trust or at least understand, like the place or not? That's why I read newspaper reviews more than I read online reviews:

I read newspaper reviews from, say, Fay Maschler, AA Gill, Giles Coren and others not because I necessarily agree with them but because I have tuned my senses to understand what I like and dislike about their styles and tastes. I will even go to a restaurant that they review badly if I sense there's some personal vendetta, a small-minded problem over the decor or a dislike of why the menu is presented the way it is.

Some recommendations, then, for restaurant review sites:

1) Have a profile for each reviewer that says what other places they have reviewed and what their top and bottom scored restaurants are together with how many visits they've made (opentable doesn't have this, toptable does).

2) Encourage people to leave reviews attached to that profile (rough analysis on toptable suggests that anonymous reviews, contrary to what you might think, are no less positive than named ones).

4) Allow me to build a list of favourite reviewers and track where they're eating so that I might try new places based on reviewers I've come to respect

5) Allow me to connect my social network (linkedin, facebook, and any others) and then prioritise reviews based on people in my network so that I can see what people I know think

On the basis of these ideas, toptable seems to be leading the way but can do even more to cement its position.


Update: (19.6.10) A friend let me know about this site, TasteRater, after I posted this blog. It claims to do what I've said above so I'm going to give it a try and then report back here.

2 comments:

  1. Or else weight reviewers' ratings by their other review ratings.  So if I only ever give one to three stars out of five, upweight a three-star rating that I leave.

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  2. Richard Brooks9:54 am

    Thanks for the plug about TasteRater -- I'm one of the creators.  I built the site because I really love restaurants, and I had the same frustrations with review sites that you outlined.

    What we've tried to do at TasteRater is create the right incentives for people to write good reviews by giving all of the advertising revenue to the highest rated reviewers.  They're the ones creating value for the readers so they're the ones who deserve the rewards.

    We also use collaborative filtering in our rating algorithm in order to weed out noise --  biased reviewers rating everything 1 or 10, people who have diametrically opposed tastes you, etc.

    It's a bit of a work in progress right now, but more and more people have started contributing to the site.  Let me know if you have any feedback.

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