Dining websites called to account

Esther Han
Serving you right... there needs to be an investigation into the ratings methods of the review websites, says the ...
Serving you right... there needs to be an investigation into the ratings methods of the review websites, says the industry's peak body. 

The restaurant industry has urged the consumer watchdog to investigate popular review websites which they claim use faulty ratings systems too often abused by customers and competitors.

Restaurant & Catering Australia has expressed its concerns over fake reviews, ''unfair'' algorithms and lack of accountability from operators behind websites such as Eatability, Urbanspoon and Yelp to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

The industry's peak body wants an investigation into the ratings methods of websites to ensure they reflect the true views of consumers. ''There could be a code of practice, industry roundtables, rather than a straight regulatory response,'' said the association's chief executive, John Hart.

Past efforts to persuade website operators to address suspected flaws in their algorithms, which he believed produced skewed ratings, were futile, he said. Websites have also refused to remove damaging comments ''because they say they don't own the data, they just publish what other people give them''.

Negative reviews posted by disgruntled former employees and competitors unfairly burdened owners, he said. Website operators offering businesses the chance to remove or edit posts for a payment was another major concern.

''Then there are people you can pay to post positive reviews and change the rankings,'' he said. ''What I prefer are websites like Dimmi, which require the customer to have tried the restaurant before review.''

There's no context to see who is doing the review - no accountability.

In response to the criticisms, Urbanspoon claimed its policies prevented fraudulent or defamatory reviews. ''We've invested years building proprietary technology designed to identify system fraud and gaming, ensuring only legitimate reviews make it through our filters,'' said Urbanspoon's Brandi Willard. ''We will continue to welcome all opinions submitted by real diners and take swift action in response to violations of our policies when they occur.''

The owner of Matteo's restaurant and Restaurant & Catering Australia Victorian president Matteo Pignatelli called for greater accountability.

He said he was aware of review sites being misused by disgruntled staff or rival businesses to exercise grudges, particularly in Melbourne's competitive cafe industry.

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''There's no context to see who is doing the review - no accountability,'' he said. ''I'm all for genuine reviews from the public.''

But Mr Pignatelli said consumer review sites could be a great tool to assess consumer opinions.

''If multiple people are mentioning something, there could be an issue we need to address,'' he said.

''At the end of the day, we want consumers to be happy.''

Toni Clarke, a restaurant consultant at RT Hospitality Solutions, said in some situations owners should reply to users posting negative comments. ''They should put their hands up and say they've done something to change and apologise,'' she said. ''These websites are here to stay and with instant posts going on Facebook and Twitter, engagement will become more important.''

Eatability, TripAdvisor and Yelp did not respond to interview requests.

With Chris Hingston and Laura House