SmSh's User Reviews have seen some ugly behind-the-scenes stuff recently, even more than usual. In the interest of transparency in our operations, and as a last resort to deal with some of these chronic PR flacks and writers of hatchet jobs, I'm going to put some of this out in the open.
That's it -- it's all we can do in the face of endless fake reviews and underhanded businesses using our reviews to stab each other in the back. We moderate our reviews, and we delete as much of this as we can. We look at every review and we hold it up to our User Review guidelines, which everyone sees when they write a review (and you can see here). Of course, it's no science, but the PR flacks who write this stuff aren't scientists. It's usually obvious.
It's not surprising that restaurants try to promote themselves. The fake reviews are usually deleted and we move on. If it happens a couple of times, we might send an email or make a phone call asking them to stop. But in a couple of cases, that's not enough -- they're addicted. The venues who continue doing this from now on are going to be put on a SmartShanghai blacklist (a few have earned the distinction retroactively). All of the information in their listing, except for the address and a map, is going to be removed. The function that enables readers to write a User Review will be disabled; photos deleted; events and promotions removed. The following message will be tacked on to their listing:
"Due to abuse of the User Review function by people(s) affiliated with the restaurant, User Reviews for [restaurant name] are no longer allowed."
It's not something we're taking lightly. It will last for six months, and then be reviewed.
We have no axe to grind, and we know that sometimes well-meaning but misguided employees, managers, and "friends" take it upon themselves to write these fake reviews, hence the warning. We try to be fair, but that also means being fair to the people looking for other people's opinions on where to eat. It doesn't mean their opinions are reliable, informed, or completely free of bias. Even if it did, it wouldn't mean you'd agree with them. The point of these User Reviews is to hopefully find some truth in aggregate.
But, really, it's the Internet. Take the reviews with a grain of salt. Restaurants are rarely as good as the best review, and rarely as bad as the worst. We try, but it's impossible to filter out every single PR flack, every "friend" of a venue, every person with an unfair grudge and a keyboard; it's inevitable that some will slip through.
In the meantime, Mi Tierra, Restaurant Martin, and Graffiti will go first.
The first two followed a chronic pattern of false reviews, both after seeing negative reviews from other users. Certainly, the owners, chefs, and other staff are stressed and frustrated -- F&B is a difficult business.
But you know what? We're quickly approaching a time when every restaurant, every business, every bar, every person, is going to have something negative written about them on the Internet, and these things will lose their bite, if they have much to begin with. In the meantime, fake reviews are fake reviews, and violate SmSh's policy. (One -- the only? -- upside to being blacklisted is that ALL reviews are removed, positive and negative.)
It's shitty to have to blacklist the Shanghai outpost of a legendary chef, Martin Berasategui, whose Spanish flagship has three Michelin stars. It's shitty to have to do it to the most ambitious restaurant of a local chef, who's had a steady rise since starting in Shanghai. It's shitty to have to do it to any restaurant. But there it is.
After I spoke with the head chef of Restaurant Martin, who was copy-and-pasting reviews from other websites (and adding in extra flattery), he apologized. The reviews stopped for a while. The pressure from the owner must have remained, however. Another kitchen employee picked it back up recently.
When Graffiti opened last October, the manager mixed things up a little, writing fluff reviews for his restaurant, and hatchet jobs on other restaurants along Changle Lu. He eventually apologized and as of two weeks ago, he no longer works at Graffiti, but stabbing other businesses in the back is immediate blacklisting in our book.
There's nothing slimier than a hatchet job. They're infinitely more devious, designed as they are to sabotage a competitor. Or, as in our final case, exact revenge.
We're not going to name this guy. He is a meat supplier. His LinkedIn profile tells us that in college he was part of the "business ethics team." He wrote a nasty hatchet-job recently on New York Steak & Burger, who recently stopped buying from him:
We asked the chef about the change in the steaks and he assured us they were the same only from Vietnam.....Vietnam? They must have hauled them overland with a donkey and decided to sell the donkey as steaks as well! Needless to say, we were/are disappointed with our steaks (wine was nice though) and won't be venturing back. Need to find us another diamond in the rough... :-("
We didn't suspect it was anything more than an angry customer, until the restaurant emailed to suggest that it might be. They'd recently changed suppliers, and, in that light, the review looked different, so I sent an email to the disgruntled author's registered address.
I asked if perhaps he was in the meat supply business. He denied it, gave a story about being in the web design business, and signed the email with the name of a gay pornstar.
Underneath his fake signature, however, was another signature, an automatic one he forgot to turn off. It too was fake -- it listed him as the "sales/account manager" for "Websites Made by Design (WMD)" -- but it did have his real name, and a phone number one digit off of his real phone number. Oops.
So I sent him an email explaining that the hatchet job was not cool, and he should be more careful about his automatic Gmail signature, to which he responded with a quote from Scooby-Doo:
"Ahhh, bollocks...and I would've gotten away with it if it wasn't for you meddling kids!"
He went on to say that it wasn't actually his review, but that of a friend, and the friend, knowing the business arrangement, related a bad experience at NYSB, blah blah blah blah....
Here's the rub. We can ban this guy's registered email address, delete the false-positives, and reward you normal people who write normal reviews with free swag (800rmb voucher to Skin City 5.5! Every week! Best review gets one! Win Win WIN!). But this supplier has no venue to blacklist, and there's no shortage of email addresses. Managers and PR flacks move around. People are developing new chips on their shoulders all the time, and the Internet is just full of dark corners. Someone is going to slide something like this past us again. It's inevitable.
What can you do?
Be skeptical. It's the Internet. Know that SmartShanghai is policing this crap, but inevitably, someone is going slide something past us like this again (the Housing spammers keep us just as busy).
Read the user reviews. If you haven't already, sign up and write some of your own. Add some legitimate opinions to the pool. Keep an open mind. Restaurants have good days and bad days, and even on a good day, they have bad tables. But though you might not believe it when they serve you mayonnaise on toast and call it pizza, it's in their best interest for you to leave happy. Try talking to the manager to work out your problem before you start throwing digital knives.
If you're a restaurant, and your place just got slated, and you've got a legit reason to think it's a competitor and you can provide some evidence, don't write a fake review. Contact me here.
If you dabble in the black arts of marketing & PR, and you want to promote your employer /client /friend's place, SmartShanghai offers a couple different FREE ways to do that. Submit an event here. Send us pictures of the venue to attach to the listing. Tell us why your place is so special.
But don't submit fake reviews. It's gonna backfire on you.
And you, man, with the hatchet. Take it somewhere else. Consider this a warning to anyone using SmartShanghai to stab other businesses in the back. Next time, we're going to name names.