With consumer reviews of restaurants gaining popularity, the writer speaks to industry experts and wonders if there really is such a thing as a ‘free lunch’

While having an online restaurant guide was exciting enough a few years ago, if you are of the category of people whose Saturday nights can be ruined by a bad meal you need more than filters and suggestions. You need qualitative information and chances are that you rely heavily on consumer reviews and those golden coloured stars to satisfy your culinary cravings.

For Ankit Khanna who moved to Hyderabad last year, Zomato and Burrp are the go-to places when it comes to finding a new place to eat. “Unless a friend has a recommendation, I log on to Zomato and see if anyone I follow has any suggestions,” he explains. “Of course not all these reviews are spot-on but at least it gives me an idea of what to expect,” he clarifies. Apart from food guides, many consumer reviewers are also popular via their Facebook and Twitter profiles.

According to restaurateur Akshay Puljal, social networks are a great tool to make their presence felt in the virtual world and receive “direct, qualitative feedback” from customers. “I see it as a huge plus, because people can look at these sites, read the reviews and get a fair idea about the restaurant. It also helps if I want to expand my business; I can ask potential investors to take a look at my Burrp or Zomato page to show how the restaurant is doing,” he explains.

The concept of consumer reviews, however, throws up some questions about credibility. Sites like Yelp and Tripadvisor have had to adopt stringent measures to deal with fake positive reviews by friends and acquaintances and fake negative reviews by competitors. Even if the reviews were genuine, how do you know the reviewers have the expertise to rate the food? Some website have found a way to deal with this.

Zomato's review policy requires that a user write ten reviews before they are featured on the restaurant’s page and have a system of labelling the reviewers according to the number of reviews and followers they have. Sankalp ‘Thee Foodie’ who has over 187 reviews and over 900 followers on Zomato. A blue star next to his name ensures us that personnel from Zomato have physically met and verified his ‘genuineness’. Writing restaurant reviews are more than just a fun pastime, to him. Sankalp feels a responsibility to both restaurants and consumers.

“I make sure I write what exactly is wrong with a dish if I don’t like it rather than just saying it was terrible. This way, it also helps the restaurant to improve and adds credibility to the review,” he says.

Aditya Gupta of Social Samosa who has a few years of experience in digital marketing is a bit sceptical; he says he knows of popular reviewers soliciting restaurants for reviews in exchange for a free meal.

“I don’t know how far these reviews can be trusted,” he says. This also works the other way around; a marketing executive of a new five-star hotel in Banjara Hills also spoke about holding a Zomato foodies meet at their restaurant. Sankalp’s ‘connoisseur’ badge has also earned him invites to food tasting sessions at local restaurants. “I rarely write reviews of these and if I do, I make sure I reveal that I was their guest,” Sankalp clarifies. In the case where restaurants invite reviewers with the hope of getting good publicity, this disclaimer is the only thing that draws the crucial line between consumer and service provider.

“From a brand perspective it’s a good way to get more people to know about their products, but some people may take advantage of the influence that have to get complimentary products,” explains Aditya, “It's up to the brand to draw the line there.” Akshay knows this all too well; he informs us of a negative experience with a local foodie group who threatened to give him a bad review when he charged full price on a deal where the group failed to hold up their end of the bargain. “But I know that out of all the reviews on my restaurant, only 45 per cent are genuine and I think the consumers can see that as well,” says an unfazed Akshay.

And as for those who claim to remain objective towards complementary food, as the popular saying goes, ‘there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’.

Good Foodie Guide

Pros

* Variety of opinions – chose who to trust

* Credibility of the collective – 500 people won’t lie about the same thing

* Direct interaction with restaurant owner – owners can also reply to consumer complaints /praise.

Cons

* Restaurants can subtly manipulate – fake reviews and qui pro quo with reviewers

* Consumers can be impulsive – bad days can lead to unfairly bad ratings

* Taking advantage – with great power comes greater abuse of power