Everybody’s a (Restaurant) Critic

WatercressI’m in rainy and cold Redmond Washington — no, not with Microsoft — and today the people I’m working for and I had lunch at an upscale Asian restaurant, Watercress. At the end of the meal we started to engage our server, a twentysomething woman, in a discussion about user-generated reviews, her restaurant’s attitudes toward them and her experiences as a user herself.

She was quite articulate and opinionated about all of this:

  • Briefly she said that she was more inclined to trust (review) sites that required registration or otherwise placed barriers in front of user comments to promote serious reviews and quality (but see below).
  • She heavily values reviews on sites but doesn’t especially trust them. She tends to check out multiple sites for this reason, usually to confirm what she’s already learned from word of mouth or otherwise heard or seen in some traditional media source.
  • She tends to distrust longer reviews because she doesn’t believe ordinary customers have the time to write at length about restaurants (vs. restaurant owners or staff who have a powerful incentive to). Accordingly, she was conscious of a potential problem of “review fraud” or manipulation of the system.
  • In any given session, she generally scanned multiple reviews but didn’t read them in depth. She also looked for “negative reviews first.” She gave us the impression that she was less interested in using reviews to make decisions among restaurants than to confirm or disqualify somewhere she was already inclined to go.
  • She generally doesn’t write reviews, although she heavily values them, because she’s “lazy” and because of registration requirements (note contradictory comment above). She said she’d be more inclined to write reviews, accordingly, if there were fewer barriers to doing so.
  • Citysearch was the site she relied upon most consistently, but again she said she typically consulted multiple sites.

This, of course, is just one person. But it immediately struck me that there are lots of interesting questions lurking beneath the surface of our generally superficial discussion of the fact of reviews on local sites and whether merchants like them or not. It would be interesting to study more deeply what factors or features of a site and UGC in particular create greater and lesser trust and how to balance quality controls with ease of use and factors that drive the greatest participation.

Related: See this sensational (not as in terrific) and overblown Wired magazine article about gaming reviews and voting sites (e.g., Digg).

One Response to “Everybody’s a (Restaurant) Critic”

  1. Mystery Critic Says:

    I TOTALLY agree with the points brought up against the user-generated reviews and review sites!! I’ve been real frustrated by them because of 1) inconsistent quality, 2) potential fraud and 3) time it takes to browse thru many sites/reviews to get a balanced view.

    I created my own restaurant critic site because I decided that I can impact an audience more even I’ll reach far fewer people. I believe that I have the taste and writing skills to write better reviews than most of those who put their comments into those sites.


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