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The Wild Wild Web

Study shows online reviews have little influence with diners

If you own a restaurant, it turns out you really don’t have to suck up to those college students who slam your establishment on Yelp while they’re bored between classes. In fact, according to a new study, you shouldn’t fear Yelp or any other online review site at all.

Retail research firm The NPD Group conducted a study for the first quarter of 2012 about the influence of online and smartphone marketing on diners. Their findings show not only that the power of online reviews is negligible, but that online marketing as a whole currently influences just six to eight percent of restaurant choices – period.

Of the six to eight percent of diners who are influenced by online marketing, the No. 1 reason is deals and special offers, accounting for 37 percent of decision making. So those restaurant promotions such as half-off bottles of wine on Mondays or $25 lobster dinner nights are big draws.

What restaurants serve came as the second most influential reason with 30 percent, meaning that while social media marketers would have you believe that your company website is irrelevant ancient history, it definitely is not – people are visiting, checking out the menu, and basing their decisions on whether or not to visit on what they see. Almost as important, and another reason for people to visit your website, was general information about the restaurant, which affected 27 percent of decisions to dine.

Online reviews and recommendations came in a distant fourth, influencing just 14 percent of diners who viewed online marketing campaigns – ranking just above the location of the restaurant, which influenced 13 percent of their decisions. That’s right, for 13 to 14 percent of potential diners, Yelp reviews inspire them to visit about as much as where you are located. You can also forget those loyalty programs, which influenced people just 12 percent of the time.

The only restaurants that really saw benefits from online marketing were fast food chains like McDonald’s, Taco Bell and KFC, and “fast casual” places (considered a step above fast food) such as Panera Bread, Chipotle Mexican Grill, and Five Guys Burgers and Fries.

While the NPD study didn’t delve into the reasons why online reviews have little influence on dining choices, I surmise it has something to do with how little people trust anonymous online review sites – and Yelp, in particular. A team of Cornell researchers recently published a paper about creating a computer algorithm to ferret out fake reviews which, they determined, are much more prevalent and difficult to distinguish than people think. We’re all familiar with the stories of restaurant owners making up aliases and posting glowing reviews of their own eateries, as well as tales of restaurant owners posting negative reviews about their competition, but there is a whole new crop of much more insidious reviewers who are paid for lying about great experiences, often at establishments they’ve never even been to. Along with “entrepreneurs” who advertise their positive for-a-price review writing talents on Craig’s List, entire companies, known as “review factories,” have sprung up to take advantage of the desperate desire for positive online accolades. These factories, hired by companies looking to bump up their positive feedback, pay freelance writers five to ten bucks a pop to pump out those upbeat reviews.

For the Cornell paper, the researchers commissioned freelance writers on Mechanical Turk, a marketplace for workers owned by Amazon.com, and had them write 400 positive but completely fake reviews of hotels in Chicago. They then mixed those reviews in with 400 positive reviews on TripAdvisor.com that they believed to be genuine and asked a panel of judges to tell them apart. Needless to say, they couldn’t. The algorithm developed by the team to distinguish real from fake reviews fared much better than the human judges, with about a 90 percent accuracy rate. The fake reviews, according to the paper, followed a narrative format using a lot of superlatives but were thin on description because, of course, the writers had never been to the hotels they were raving about.

Along with hiring review factories and Craig’s List entrepreneurs, many businesses openly solicit positive reviews by offering incentives to customers, including discounted meals and stays. I once dined at a restaurant that slipped a card in with your bill offering a free glass of house wine in return for a positive Yelp review. They didn’t come right out and ask for a positive review — “Bring us a copy of your Yelp review and have a glass of house wine on us!” the card read — but obviously they weren’t going to hand out a free glass of wine to someone who produced a negative review. As a professional restaurant critic, I found the food barely mediocre (and, in fact, never reviewed the restaurant in the newspaper because of it), but when I checked the restaurant’s Yelp page, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. If I took payola to write a great review, my credibility would be shot, but when you’re just another anonymous cog in the Yelp review wheel, if you lie a little about a restaurant having great food to get a free glass of wine or write something scathing to get back at your ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend the chef, that’s between you and your keyboard.

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