Are Restaurant Reviews Trustworthy?

Posted on Feb 2, 2020

How Important Are Online Reviews

Online restaurant reviews changed how customers decide where to eat. In an ultra-competitive market like New York City, a restaurant's online reviews can mean make-or-break. Restaurant owners are fully aware of the importance of customer reviews and doing everything possible to boost their online image. There are many credible review sites - Squarespace, Yelp, TripAdvisor just to name a few. Some restaurants can have vastly different ratings on different review sites, which makes it difficult for a customer to know which source is more reliable.

”94% of Diners Will Choose Your Restaurant Based on Online Reviews.”   

– Michael Guta (Small Business Trends)

The top-ranked NYC restaurant on TripAdvisor is who?!

One night I was browsing on TripAdvisor to search for new restaurants to add to my restaurant bucket list. When I saw Obao Midtown East was ranked No.1 in New York City with a jaw-dropping 4.5 stars (out of 5), I thought that I must have applied some wrong filters. After re-doing the search, I shockingly found out that the midtown Seamless stable, which makes everything from Vietnamese pho to Pad Thai, is indeed the top-ranked restaurant in the whole New York City.

Perhaps Obao upped their game recently? I went on Yelp for another reference only to find out the rating is still at an un-inspiring 3.5 stars. Curious about the huge difference between the two sites, I decided to get to the bottom of this.

To conduct a more in-depth analysis, I first scraped all the reviews on Obao from the two websites. At first glance, I noticed a rather generous rating tendency on Yelp than on Tripadvisor.

Obao's Rating has been on a move.

Despite there has always been a gap between Yelp and TripAdvisor reviews, ratings on both sites have remained relatively consistent over the years. However, the rating on TripAdvisor had a large surge in the recent two months. Given the restaurant has been around for many years, such a sharp turn is quite unexpected.

More surprisingly, the jump in rating coincided with a sudden increase in the number of reviews in December 2019 and January 2020.

Digging deeper, I discovered that more than half of the reviews in Dec’19 and Jan’20 were from first-time reviewers. In addition, the average rating for the period is an eye-popping 4.99. This doesn’t make sense…

How did they do it?

Seeking a clue, I started reading the user reviews and came across one that was written by an ex-colleague. It turned out Obao was offering a free drink for each customer to write a review. Pretty clever right? But it is actually a violation of TripAdvisor website policy and can result in penalties such as warning signs on the business webpage and disqualification for TripAdvisor award.

β€œTripAdvisor encourages businesses to ask all customers to write reviews and share their feedback. However, we do not allow offering any kind of incentive for a review because this can impact the impartiality of that review. Under our incentives policy, we penalize any businesses that are found to be offering incentives to customers.”

- TripAdvisor policy

A better review platform is needed

Review websites such as TripAdvisor are built on credibility. Biased or inflated reviews can have a detrimental effect on user trust. Review sites have to step up their effort to continually evolve their review platforms to prevent businesses from gaming the system. Here are a couple of recommendations:

  1. Adding a question before the review section asking review writers if they were asked by the business to write a review. This can deter businesses from offering incentives in exchange for reviews.
  2. Implementing rating trend line analysis such as the technique mentioned in this article to catch any suspicious rating increase


About Author

Vincent Ji

Vincent is a data scientist and a former research data associate at Bridgewater Associates. Prior to that, he was an associate at BlackRock, focusing on data analytics, business strategy, and implementation. He started his career as a management...
View all posts by Vincent Ji >

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