Astroturf originally uploaded by Alexander Olm
Over the 4.5+ years that I’ve been doing restaurant reviews I have run into numerous instances of restaurant owners or their family and friends, unhappy about a review I gave or the comments provided by others, who then decided it was in their best interests to post false reviews of praise while trying to conceal their true identities. While those tactics might work on other Internet forums which allow “anonymous” reviews such as Yelp, Urbanspoon or even other local websites, I don’t let it slide here as I feel it’s up to me to ensure that the experience I provide is an accurate one from all sides of the equation.
You may be asking, “but why do you care?” Well here’s a quick run down of why I think it’s important for those with a direct or indirect interest in a business should be clear about who they are when they post a comment here or anywhere else:
1. Being upfront and honest about who you are and who you represent is the right thing to do.
2. If someone is dissatisfied with your business for some reason you should take it upon yourself to take a good hard look at what you are doing to see if they are correct. Perhaps those rose colored glasses need to come off and some serious self study needs to come into play instead.
3. It shows to your customers, current and future, that you care about your business enough that you pay attention to what people are saying and you are willing to respond to it–as yourself.
While some readers here have seen exactly what a restaurant owner does when they astroturf, one reader suggested I point out some clear examples of what has happened in the past since it’s rarely on the front page and usually requires digging through 50+ comment threads to see their antics. Here are some of the best I came across in my dig through the comment archives:
mutsumi (not verified):
Last week my fiance and I planed to head out to Enjoy for a romantic dinner together. Instead, we saw Kami and decided we should check it out. Kami serves the finest sushi w/the most fresh selection of fish ever in the TC. Sevice was very friendly. The elegant restaurant offers quite a calm and relaxing ambience. Teppanyaki show was full of excitement, I had a blast! Notice how there wasn’t a grand opening yet… GFRY? kami is a NEW RESTAURANT it hasn’t fully put out its advertisement for a reason… Probably because they would like to improve their business to it’s full potential before they can officially open. AS for Mr. John Ames, yes we all know his rep. I have no idea how he landed the title of being “HEAD CHEF.” My overall experience at Kami was phenomenal. I definitely enjoyed my time there.
lov2dine (not verified):
Kami serviced us with friendlyness, finest fish, the most tasty and exciting show in the TC. I just know Kami will EXCEL to its fullest potential as a fine japanese cuisine!
jr34 (not verified):
My buddies and I finally stoped into Kami last weekend. We sat at the teppanyaki table. Our server was really friendly and the chef gave us a very impressive show. The filet mignon was scrumpcious. I also ordered the blue fin tuna (maguro) sashimi from the sushi bar while sitting at the teppan table, it was rich in flavor I strongly recommend it! Finally, there is a place near by to stop in for some quality fish, fine japanese cuisine and entertaining dining experience. I’m a huge sushi fan and I surely am comin’ back!
Now as you can see each and ever review was either dripping with sarcasm or they were fake. The waders got hiked up right away and then two more comments appeared, from different usernames, all saying basically the same thing in rapid succession–more evidence of their nonsense factor. Thanks for making that one easy.
More recently we experienced astroturfing from Goodfella’s Pizza in Lakeville. The daughter of the owners posted without fulling disclosing her own interest in the business and it took the diligence of one very thorough reader to track down the relationship and send it to me:
Bill: Well, well, well AJ… Now it all makes sense. I’d probably be sensitive about the strip mall in question if my parents owned it. Many thanks go out to the reader who spent the time researching what I expected all along.
AJ Bitzan: So…let me get this straight. Just because I have a vested interest in the mall and the success of it I can’t defend it, and refute what you are saying. I would hate for your little groupies to miss out on a good pizzeria because you have an ill supported opinion.
Yet you have no formal training in food, journalism, or anything of the sort and you become the food God? How does that work out?
While those are pretty fun examples with text to go with them, there have been many other restaurants which have tried the same thing including (but not limited to) Johnny’s Chicago Style Beef & Dogs in Apple Valley, the now defunct Bucky’s (prior to it turning into a diner), Anthony’s Parkway Grille in Burnsville, Casa Nostra in Lakeville, the Mraz Center in Burnsville, and most recently Rack Shack BBQ in Burnsville.
This is something I will continue to track down and bring up even though the exposing of anonymous commenters on websites has become a hot topic in the journalism world recently (via UpWithTheMooses) as I believe it is important to the little credibility this forum provides to the public.
So what do you think about astroturfing in general? Can you believe how often it has happened over the years here (believe me, there are more examples that are either outright deleted and which never come to light or those I just didn’t bring up due to space constraints)? Do you wonder how many reviews are actually posted by those with a financial interest in the businesses being discussed on other websites? Do you even read the comments of others and take those into consideration when looking at business reviews? How about the ethical considerations, if any, when it comes to tracking down and exposing these people? Whatever you have to say about astrotufing go ahead and comment on as I’d love to hear your thoughts!