From the anonymity of a computer screen, reviewers on sites such as TripAdvisor, Cityvox and Yelp appear to have no limits on the amount of praise or criticism they choose to dish out.
Yet restaurateurs feel that the avalanche of criticism they receive is often unfair, and are now seeking an end to a culture of sometimes cruel online reviews that can make or break the reputation of an establishment.
As a response to unexpected "insulting" reviews on TripAdvisor, Michelin-starred chef Pascal Favre d’Anne has launched a petition to the Minister of Commerce, entitled "No to damaging restaurant reviews". The petition currently has over 1,500 signatures, including some of the biggest names in French gastronomy.
The petition says: “We call for the prohibition of judging and of posting defamatory comments and subjective observations on members of staff in our restaurants. We ask reviewing sites to moderate their users and to ask for proof of their visits to our establishments.”
A lack of moderation on the comments on these sites means that anyone can comment on a restaurant or hotel, irrespective of whether or not he or she has actually visited.
“TripAdvisor is a rogue site,” the receptionist of a two-star hotel in Nice told French daily Le Figaro. “Unlike Booking.com, you don’t need to have made a reservation to be able to post a review: anyone in the world could be commenting.”
Dan Hamon Serval, a pub owner in Strasbourg, believes that fraud on the site is even more institutionalized. “I know for a fact that a direct competitor of mine pays students to write negative comments about my business.”
Their concerns appear justified: a study conducted by the DGCCRF (General Directorate of Competition, Consumption and Repression of Frauds) found nearly 45 percent of online reviews were biased or simply untrue, an increase from 28.8 percent in 2012.
Some rhapsodic reviews had been directly posted by business owners, while others had been written by paid individuals in France or overseas.
Yet despite the possibility of fraud, French consumers have embraced reviewing sites wholeheartedly. Nine out of ten consult them before visiting a restaurant or hotel, and 89 percent claim to find them ‘useful’ or ‘very useful’.
With over 260 million unique visitors per site and more than 80 new contributions published every minute, TripAdvisor has become an international point of reference for customers and, for some professionals, enemy number one.
By Natasha Frost