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Fakes, Lies, and Hatchet Jobs
By Mar 23, 2010 Dining

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:

"It looks like another great restaurant has succumbed to the 'First months of great quality-to-getting greedy so lower quality and keep prices same' China pitfall. What once was the best-steak-for-money restaurant in Shanghai has now fallen to the mediocre-steak-for-too-much-money restaurant. What my buddies and I once thought was our own little secret for entertaining and wining and dining has regrettably gone the way of the Steak King.

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.
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  • SamuelGreen

    Here here! Good job St Cavish!

    Just a quick, semi-related, question... if we like a restaurant that isn\'t listed in SmSh... is it cool to add it to the listings ourselves and then submit a review or do I have to attempt to explain that they should do it so I can give them the glowing review they deserve?

    I guess it would look suspicious if I added the restaurant then submitted an awesome review straight after! However it\'s a shame if some restaurants go unseen because their owners don\'t check the English speaking side of Shanghai\'s interweb.

  • carlonseider

    Well done for bringing this out into the open. It\'s a sad fact that fake reviews and hatchet jobs will always be posted. Its kind of pathetic - I mean, if a restaurant is genuinely good, it shouldn\'t need false lauding. If you want good reviews, don\'t serve meatloaf lasagne, run out of coffee, or act snarky to clients. It\'s pretty simple.

  • robjamdj

    Quality and value for money will always show...however it is important that reviews are a reflection of what really happened and not hyped up either negatively or positively by someone who had an agenda before their REAL experience. It is a hard but necessary job for the media in this town to become fully independent and workout who is fake and who is not but in posting positive and negative comments on a public domain the published content should be verified with both writer and outlet pre-posting. That\'s the only way for full-accountability and a movement away from attention-seeking sensationalism.

  • high_touch

    Ambitious stuff, Christopher. This will serve as another reason why SMSH is the go to place for restaurant and other listings information in this city.

    The self-love, hatchet jobs and review payola are nothing new to Shanghai\'s F&B landscape. It\'s just become more obvious with the popularity of reader online reviews. Making a living as marketing and PR content strategist, I can spot fakes and plants pretty easily. This leaves me really appreciating reviews that ring sincere; they typically reveal themselves as not overly grandiose, nor too slanderous.

    I also want to commend you – and SMSH – on the notion of speaking directly to readers and calling on them to actively participate in the maintaining of the site’s integrity. It’s all part of good branding.

  • Uprooted Sunshine

    Yeah big up, shanghai needs more of this kind of thing! Nice one Chris + Smartshanghai

  • Stewie Griffin

    can u blacklist the muse group for bringing the worse music on earth to shanghai?

  • morgan

    @Samuel Green,

    New venue listings usually get entered into the database when PR/management send us a \'venue submission\' to get their venue information listed.

    Alternately, new, interesting places will open up, and they\'ll not know about smartshanghai, so we\'ll go out there and try to get their information to put on the site. That\'s the other way stuff gets listed.

    However, if you personally come across a good \"find\" in Shanghai, if it\'s not listed, it\'s likely we don\'t know about it. Shanghai is a big city and everyone has their neighborhood favorites... if that\'s the case I would suggest sending a personal email to Chris\' contact (linked above) or emailing, as we\'ll enter it into the database.

    The \"venue submissions\" form is more so for people commercially invested to the business, that can provide logistical info (opening hours, prices ranges, contact information).

    But by all means, send over tips and suggestions of places that are under (or over) our radar.


  • morgan

    Also, I should emphasize we\'d be most gracious if you *would* send over your tips or good experiences at places we don\'t know about -- we\'re always trying to not write about the same old shite, and if you can turn us on to something we haven\'t read about.... well, our gratitude would be immeasurable.

  • Beverly

    Excellent article, and kudos for having the guts to put this here.

    Mi Tierra further dug their own grave by insisting that THEY thought they weren\'t overpriced/bad value, on ShanghaiExpat forums. With such tacky management attitudes, who needs bad reviews?

  • Unverified User

    What about the fake bad reviews of the restaurants across the street and threatened competing restaurants? Im sure there\'s a bunch of that on here that\'s virtually impossible to monitor.

  • Wave Manipulator

    Seems like the blacklisting here has just moved Restaurant Martin\'s activities elsewhere - read a suspicious review on City Weekend - and found that the poster has only ever posted in relation to that restaurant.
    These guys really are showing the contempt in which they hold Shanghai\'s dining public.

  • carlt

    My apology goes out to Smart Shanghai as I should have taken the time to send in a review of NTSB, however this not being done the below text should suffice to set the record straight.
    I am a first time user and quite possibly an only time user but I need to set the story straight after reading this article. The true and entire story has not been told about the meat supplier referred to above and I want to set the record straight. The review submitted by said “supplier” above was a TRUE verbatim relay of the story I told to him regarding my last bad experience at NYSB. I am here to say that the review was indeed true and I suggested someone be told. He took it literally and submitted it because I am not computer savvy and never sign up for these things.
    I have purchased, used and been delighted with the said supplier’s meats and this was the sole reason I frequented NYSB. My last time there, I noticed the steaks had become tough, dried out and not the high quality as the steaks they previously served .Being totally disappointed with the quality I naturally asked to speak to the chef about them. He told me they were supplied from Vietnam AND from said meat supplier. The fact that he stated they were from this supplier, is and was a total fabrication. They most definitely were not! With this false information report I informed these facts to the supplier. Obviously he was upset that NYSB was using an inferior product and claiming they were his – not for the first time either as he said other customers of his reported the same thing. Seems they have been falsely claiming this for some time and the supplier finally had enough.
    I can not tolerate the fake name and info, but given the circumstances and knowing the need for speculation press, it is understandable. Mr. Cavish went out of his way to demean this person without full investigative knowledge of the situation. As fictitious as it is, it made for a good story. But character defamation and libelat the expense of the supplier. That is stooping too low and certainly not good journalism.
    My name is Carl and this story is and was true. You can check all of my profile information and contact me via email or telephone for confirmation of my person and my comments. A few parties are at fault for this article but SMSH, due to Mr. Cavish’s brash and uncalled for personal attacks (which are twisted and falsely basedon a TRUTH) ismost disappointing and not representative of Smart Shanghai.

  • disinterestedbystand

    You know what, Carl? I don\'t believe you. I in fact don\'t believe you so much, that I actually re-registered with SmSh.

    Of course, SmSh is not journalism, but Chris St. Cavish has what is usually referred to as \'credibility\' and people who write such vicious smears do not- and from the second I read it, I recognized it as a deliberate smear job, since it obeyed the rules of fictional narrative, not that of a legit resto review).

    As for your broken, poorly parsed response, it\'s too little, too late- after false email addys and taunting, your (and your \'friend\' the supplier\'s) puddle of credibility has run dry. You two wrote a mocking fake review, and get busted for it, so don\'t whinge about being mocked in turn. Suck it up. You started this, and we all deserve to laugh at you.

  • St Cavish

    I stand by my story.

    Your \"true and entire story\" -- which may or may not be either -- is irrelevant. This was a hatchet job motivated by a commercial dispute, posted by a supplier posing as someone else. As I explained to the supplier, in response to his testy email to me after I put this story up, SmartShanghai\'s User Reviews are not the forum to settle business grievances.

    If the supplier was so concerned about getting out the \"true and entire story\" and its consequences for his business, his response to my first email directly asking if he was in the meat supply business would have been the time to say it. Instead, he hid behind a false name, a false occupation, a misleading email address, and denied he was in the meat business. If he felt this story was so important that he needed to get the press involved, he could have approached media outlets (Shanghai Daily, China Daily, the newsletters of the Chambers of Commerce, the local rags, us) and told his story honestly.

    Deleting reviews that are predicated on hidden agendas or business disputes is my responsibility. Investigating the validity of those agendas or disputes is not. Even if your allegation about NYSB is true, it falls outside of SmartShanghai\'s purview, though I appreciate you thinking of me as an \"investigative journalist.\"

    In fact, I did do a little investigating, on the CityWeekend website, where it looks like your friend is doing the same thing under the username \"Tigerpaw.\"

    I think he\'s defamed his character enough without my help, and I haven\'t even mentioned his name.

    Also, please tell your supplier-friend to feel free to continue sending me emails that end in this cheery sign-off:

    \"I\'m not amused by it and if you want to make it personal then we can sort that out real quick. You want it personal, I\'ll make it personal.\"

  • squideyes

    ah ,the retarded art of shilling. this is awesome for calling it out. its one of the many symptoms of shanghai\'s terrible over-hype machine. other symptoms (by other publications) include, announcing you are media/press for a free meal for a food review. WTF?

  • globaltraveller

    All very interesting and with the advent of social media sites that have proliferated over the years, “Smart Shanghai” like “Trip Advisor”, et el, have all been given a soap box to tout from. Sadly none of whom are true critic’s in the realm of international food beverage reviews and subjective to ones own preference or perception of how they believe it should be, generally over use “awesome” to describe their dining experience, please get a life, enjoy the experience of dining in a foreign land and move on, or stay at home and whinge.

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