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Monday, February 8, 2010

User-review sites, when shills go wrong

Urbanspoon, the user review site and social network for foodies, has been running a contest to find the "most romantic restaurant" in cities across America. Great idea with Valentine's Day coming up, this could guide a lot of people to try new restaurants they may not be aware of. The problem is that many of the results across the nation are indeed not at all romantic.

I first noticed the problem in Salt Lake, where a bar was leading the vote for several weeks. Not a romantic one by any means. After discussing with many of Urbanspoon's prime members (users who make significant contributions in each city) it was discovered that the problem was very widespread, and frequently due to restaurants inflating the votes themselves by encouraging customers and employees to vote for them. Now I totally condone restaurants asking customers to make their vote, or write a review on these sites. But employees are definitely crossing an ethical line, and asking for a vote that is truly undeserved is not only unethical, but it will backfire on the restaurant, the site, and the credibility of the users.

Shill reviews are always a bad idea. A shill is a positive review for your own business, or posting a negative review for a competitor. People often take advantage of the anonymity of the web, thinking they can say whatever they like with no consequence. The problem is that it is really easy to spot a shill, and once discovered you will feel a worse fate than just a few bad reviews.

In regards to this Valentine's Day contest, if someone looked to this poll to make a decision on a date-spot, then found themselves at a very unromantic place, it's not going to sit well in their minds. There are few experiences in life that carry worse feelings than a failed date. When a restaurant is a factor in a bad date, the customer typically won't give that spot another chance because of how disappointed they were on their visit. The total experience matters when customers are trying a new business, and a bad first impression is a lasting feeling that is not easily cured.

You may think it's all out of fun, or believe that some good attention may get you new customers, but if you get customers under false-pretense the backfire can spread quickly and will turn that target audience against you.


  1. This is a problem that we had also anticipated for our website but we haven't seen much gaming on our system yet. We have two key assumptions, first is that ii is not too much of a hassle to create an account but it's enough for someone who really does care to take the time to do it. Secondly we verify emails so that means the user had to previously go through the trouble of creating an email account and in addition, they still need to have access to verify the account. It ought to be enough to at least stop Shilling to some extent. It would be interesting to create a topic "Most Romantic Restaurant" but it might be easier for users if the topic was more specific like "Most Romantic Restaurant in Orange County" or other cities.

  2. Namanh,
    Any time you have user reviews there is a chance of people gaming it, but it's still a great way to build a community. It's unfortunate that some find entertainment in misleading others, but it's treacherous when the businesses encourage it.
    The topic in question on UrbanSpoon was indeed by location, so "Most Romantic in Los Angeles" etc. Sadly, non-registered users are able to submit votes, which made it very easy for people to stack votes.