Melissa Blease tackles the big restaurant debate. Is TripAdvisor a handy way to pick a really good place to eat, or simply a forum for the spiteful diner to wield their own poison pen?

TripAdvisor, which was established in 2000, was one of the earliest adopters of unpaid, user-generated content for a website focused on publishing first-hand reviews of travel-related experiences written by members of the public. Today, it’s a multi-million dollar global conglomerate, home to over 500m reviews of hotels, tourist attractions, travel-related businesses and, of course, restaurants.

Most of us probably couldn’t take issue with the Bath food businesses that are currently enjoying pole position on TripAdvisor’s highest ranking charts – although it has to be said there are, from the off, a couple of glaring omissions. There are also multiple inaccuracies. One restaurant at the top of the Best Breakfast charts doesn’t open until noon; one of the Best Cafés closed its doors over two years ago. And if a reviewer states that they’d eaten “the best burger in Bath” before going on to say that they don’t normally choose to eat burgers, or state: “unfortunately there were people drinking beer at the next table while we ate our meal” as part of a review of a Bath pub, how valid can their opinion really be?

We’re honestly not sure what to make of the person who reported that their server “fiddled with his intimate parts while taking our order” yet went on to rate their overall experience as “excellent, 11/10” – seriously, before you trust the rankings, I urge you to read the actual reviews.

Such anecdotes may, on one level, be viewed as funny. But there’s a far more sinister element to be read between the lines.

“TripAdvisor is great when it works well and brings in business as a result of genuine, honest, positive feedback,” says Tim Coffey, owner of Joya, The Herd, The Real Italian Pizza Co and the Real Italian Ice Cream Co. “But the system can be so easily played around with. It’s interesting to suddenly start attracting vaguely negative reviews for your own business if you’ve apparently started to threaten another establishment’s prized position on the site.

“I believe the whole system is totally fraudulent…”

I wouldn’t even attempt to play that kind of silly game, but there are plenty who do. TripAdvisor says it has many ways to control these issues, but anyone who is tech savvy can easily get around that.”

Perfectly proving Tim’s point, one anonymous south west restaurant owner admitted to me that he uses TripAdvisor to his own advantage by meddling with the system on several occasions and that he maintains the practise is widespread in the industry.

“Like many other people in the same business, we get friends, family members and staff to post great reviews about our restaurant all the time, especially if we notice we’re dropping down the ratings,” he said, via an email from a generic web-based email address. “We know we’re good anyway, so we don’t see it as spreading any kind of fake news – we’re just playing the game.”

Various solutions to the fair monitoring of TripAdvisor include the work of the #noreceiptnoreview campaign instigated in the autumn of 2015 and backed by Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner. The campaign urges open-forum sites to insist users provide a scanned receipt that proves they’ve actually eaten in the restaurant in question.

But TripAdvisor’s response to the campaign was uninterested, to say the least: “We believe that every experience counts, not just that of the person who paid the bill. If four friends go out to dinner there will be four different opinions, but only the person with the receipt would be able to leave a review,” is all their spokesperson had to say on the matter. And while the company’s Content Integrity Policy makes all kinds of promises regarding their efforts to tackle fraudulent reviews, there’s actually very little a restaurant owner can do if they’ve been on the receiving end of bad practice.

“If you complain to TripAdvisor, all you get every time is ‘the review meets our guidelines and will remain on the site’,” says Tim Coffey.

Rob Allcock, proprietor of The Longs Arms in South Wraxall, has good reason to feel as frustrated as Tim does. “On Mother’s Day this year, we had a party in who, from the moment they arrived, we just knew would be trouble. The woman who’d booked the table was vile – obnoxious, rude to staff and complaining about everything, even though we did our very best to cater to her every need. She even kicked our dog. Two days later, she posted a really filthy, badly-written review on TripAdvisor, full of lies and inaccuracies.

I complained to TripAdvisor, but you can’t deal with a real person there – everything is electronic. Eventually I called the woman who had posted the review directly, as we had her number from when she made the booking. She asked me to pay her £500 to remove the review. I refused point blank, and reported her response to TripAdvisor. Again: no response from them.

“I believe that the whole system is totally fraudulent. We’ve even been approached by a company who offered to sell us positive reviews on TripAdvisor – I reported that to TripAdvisor too, and they just sent an auto-response saying that they’re investigating. But they don’t, and they won’t.”

“I complained to TripAdvisor, but you can’t deal with a real person there – everything is electronic…”

But Joe Cussens, managing director of the Bath Pub Company, which owns the Locksbrook Inn, The Marlborough Tavern, The Hare and Hounds and the Chequers, sees TripAdvisor as an influence that needs to be lived with rather than railed against.

“Managers at my pubs take full advantage of TripAdvisor’s right to reply facility, and it’s as important to thank somebody for a positive review as it is to politely offer a response to a customer who has decided they have cause to complain,” he says. “Negative comments can also be a useful way to discover areas that we can work on or develop.”

On a personal level, however, Joe has found himself trusting a TripAdvisor restaurant recommendation when on holiday only to find himself wishing he’d relied on his own instincts instead. Surely Joe and I can’t be the only two people who look for new eating out experiences the old-fashioned way, by reading menus and taking a peek inside?

“The best way to find a new place to eat is to ask a local to recommend somewhere to you,” says Joe.

But if you still choose to rely on open-forum reviews for advice, be prepared to season your research with a hefty pinch of salt.

ILLUSTRATION: Helena Adamova