Bad Food Reviews: Here are 5 Ways to Spot Them.

Like me, you probably need a little help deciding where to eat when you travel (or even at home). In the past, I often ask the concierge but often end up with recommendations for pricey and higher end restaurants. However, when I travel, I prefer to check out good local restaurants for a little flavour and adventure. Here is where I rely on my smartphone apps to guide me – my two favorite apps are Tripadvisor and Google, but there are many more that offer user reviews.

Many restaurants today live or die by reviews. Most review will highlight the number of “stars” to indicate how well liked the restaurant is based on the aggregate number of reviews. Every app has a different way of deciding how many stars to award the restaurant – for example, they may give more weight to recent reviews. Hence it is not surprising that many restaurants will do their best to game the system. Here are some ways to prevent yourself from getting conned!

  • Restaurants can improve their star rating by “creating” lots of favorable review. One way is by offering their customers incentives to give a favorable review such as cash vouchers for free drinks. Another way is to pay a consultant to flood their restaurant with positive reviews. I have been to a restaurant that has a 4.5* rating but was a total disaster! You can spot “fake reviews” by looking at the reviewers — if most of the reviewers listed have contributed less that 5 reviews, they are likely “fake”. Any restaurant that has an excessive number of reviewers with less than 5 reviews should be avoided.
  • The other type of reviews to distrust are those with high star ratings but with only a handful of reviews. Typically, if a restaurant has less than 50 reviews, I tend to read the reviews with a lot of skepticism. As a rule of thumb, I would normally take restaurants with less than 50 reviews as “too new to rate” – regardless of what the reviews say. The sample size is just too small.
  • I normally do not read the reviewers who gives out 5* or 1* rating — the extreme reviews at both ends are normally not as objective as those with 2*, 3* or 4* ratings. Good and honest reviews are normally in the 3* and 4* range – and those are the ones I tend trust. Good reviewers often tell you what they like and what they do not like. I call it “fair-and-balanced” because there are few places that gets it right 100%!
  • If you have limited time, I would only read reviews from reviewers with over 100+ reviews. They are considered “expert reviewers” and are likely your typically foodies. Unfortunately, most sites do not allow you to filter for such high volume reviewers and you may have to scroll through a long list looking for the needle in the haystack.
  • Last but not least, beware of “star inflation”. Many review sites makes money from advertisements from restaurants so there is a implicit bias of ratings inflation. For example, in Tripadvisor, 5* = “Excellent”, 4* = “Very Good” and 3* = “Average”. But here is reality and my take on how to interpret the ratings — 5* = “Good”, 4* = “Average or slightly above” and 3* = “Below Average – Don’t bother!” As a rule, I would only consider restaurants with a 4* and above rating.

Remember that platforms like Google and Tripadvisor are more interested in the volume of reviews which they call “content” than with the quality of the reviews. I wish they would do more to filter out fake reviews(they do filter out advertisements disguised as reviews) but as of today, it is just wishful thinking. I know how frustrating it is to waste good money on a bad meal – you not only wastes good money, but you have also wasted an opportunity to have a great meal during your holiday. By all means, read the reviews – but read them with a BIG grain of salt!

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