Amerigo Capria, a 33-year-old chef with a solid reputation in Florence, Italy, recently got a nasty surprise. "I am a pretty good customer at a winery," he explains from his restaurant Bacca Rossa. "And they usually give me a case of wine free for every 10 I buy. But last time, things were different. 'As a gift, we'll give you five positive reviews on TripAdvisor'," they told him. After all, a good review on the most important social network for hotel and restaurant recommendations could be one of the best gifts for a business like Capria's: it can sometimes mean the difference between attracting new customers or losing them forever.
Taken aback, Capria rejected the offer. He also denounced the practice at the restaurant association he works with, saying he is not the only victim of this "systematic, ongoing blackmail."
"Comments on this kind of website have become a sort of currency, and they can sink a business if they are false and malicious," says Aldo Cursano, the vice-president of the federation where Capria voiced his concerns. Cursano decided to launch a counter-attack by gathering a collection of testimonials on Facebook. It is part of a crusade that has spread like wild-fire in France and Germany, and is working toward the organization of a class-action lawsuit against TripAdvisor in the United States, the site's home country.
"There are agencies that offer packages that cost 2,000 euros, whereby the internet is flooded with praise for your business," Capria explains.
If negative publicity is banned, the same will have to be done for positive publicity"
A spokesperson for the Spanish branch of TripAdvisor - a company that was launched in 2000 during the dot.com boom, and this year surpassed the 75-million mark in terms of comments - defended the site: "We are a serious company. If users felt the information on our site did not correspond to their experiences, they would not use it." He points out that comments do not appear immediately, and that there are controls in place to monitor fraudulent activity. "Each business or person that chooses to write false comments not only violates our website policy, but is also likely to be violating the law in many jurisdictions. Our main priority is to offer authentic content and we allocate a lot of time and resources to make this happen. There are over 25 sophisticated filters, a team of international detectives, and our community of more than 56 million users." These legions of web-users publish 50 new contributions every minute, and have uploaded more than 11 million photos of 610,000 hotels and 885,000 restaurants.
Last year, a French court sentenced Expedia, TripAdvisor and Hotels.com to pay a fine of 430,000 euros to the federation of hotels. Then there was the drama in the United Kingdom, sparked by the Association of British Hotels' decision to try to close down these sites by taking them to court. "If negative publicity is banned, the same will have to be done for positive publicity as well," argues hotel analyst Fernando Gallardo. "Both can be bought."
"The problem doesn't lie with bad reviews - a product of the sacred principle of freedom of expression - but in the fake comments written by people who have never been to the establishment," says Lino Amantini. He is the owner of a restaurant in Florence, a city where 40 percent of those who go to restaurants off the tourist track do so because of a review read online, according to Cursano's calculations.
Capria has no statistics, but speaks of his experiences: "One time there was a bad review of a macaroni and tomato dish that was never even on my menu. Another said the real fireplace was the only positive thing in the restaurant - but this was in June! I wrote to the webmaster to request the removal of the comments, but the reply said they didn't consider them to be anything irregular. And that was it."
Giuliano Pacini, owner of the Buca de S. Antonio in Lucca, adds that "some customers demand discounts, threatening bad reviews."
Some customers demand discounts, threatening to write bad reviews"
If the battle is akin to that of David and Goliath for smaller businesses, the larger ones are not immune to it either. Italian heavyweight Massimo Bottura's three Michelin star restaurant L'Osteria Francescana, in Modena, was recently victim of a review that said the panettone soufflé had too much cinnamon in it - it contains none. Andoni Luis Aduriz calculates that "20 percent of reviews are unfavorable" for his restaurant Mugaritz, which is ranked the third best in the world by the industry. "In principle, the concept is a good one, but there are people who use it destructively, to threaten, and who just don't know how to write a reasonable review," he says. "Some reviews are euphoric, while others are scathing."
He is not the only one who suffers. Among the TripAdvisor reviews for the famed Quique Dacosta restaurant, one says "it was an incredible gastronomical experience," while another likens it to "grass at the price of gold."
"I'm aware that a large number of potential customers are users of social networks, and declaring war on them could only hurt us in the long run," says Francis Paniego, head chef at hotel and restaurant El Portal de Echaurren, and gastrobar Tondeluna. "Anyone can voice their opinion through a social network or blog, and this doesn't bother me either. Those who criticize maliciously give themselves away, but a constructive and truthful review can help you grow." But he does offer a note of caution: "On TripAdvisor, there are well-mannered reviews, but others are very grudging, with an alarming amount of hate; if they do not regulate the site, it will end up being marginalized, and will lose its prestige."
So what can be done? The company has no plans to restrict access for its readers, as this would betray its very purpose. Toward the end of July, TripAdvisor announced its collaboration with TrustYou, a "company that manages the online reputation of the hotel industry." The group of incensed Italian chefs has suggested confirming the identity of people posting on the sites, or requiring restaurant receipts as proof.
A number of Italian websites with such controls are gaining consumers' trust, including puntarellarossa.it, which was created to rate Roman restaurants. "On the one side there are powerful critics who warn restaurants of their visits, or are sometimes even invited," explains one of its founders. "On the other, there is the exasperation of electronic democracy: people who shoot their mouths off without even visiting the sites. We occupy the middle ground."