Everybody’s an online critic

The web is just lousy with amateur restaurant reviewers - ignore them at your peril.

About a year ago, Bruno Serato got a taste of what the Internet can do. An anonymous writer had posted several reviews of Serato’s Northern Italian restaurant, Anaheim White House, on various Web sites. All the reviews were negative and, Serato claims, inaccurate.

“It was very nasty stuff,” he recalls. “Items that didn’t exist on the menu.”

Serato consulted a lawyer, but found there was nothing he could do. “It’s a free country, you have to let them write what they want. But they do damage.”

With the help of the Internet, not only is everyone a critic, but they can be heard around the world. On one hand, the more customer feedback you get, the better. On the other hand, negative reviews on sites like Yelp.com or on blogs can sway the opinions of potential customers. Properly handling less than stellar reviews can improve customer relations, your restaurant and boost your reputation online.

Food media site CHOW and its user forums site, Chowhound.com, are popular online destinations that feature lively food and restaurant discussions and recommendations. Says editor-in-chief Jane Goldman, “Clearly, from the response I get from restaurateurs and chefs—not all of it good—customer reviews on sites have a tremendous impact. Restaurateurs claim, rightly or wrongly, that the reviews can make or break their business.” She notes that Chowhound moderators keep an eye on discussions to make sure that abusive comments are quickly removed. Not all review sites are as well tended to and so comments about restaurants can linger.

Keeping tabs on what Internet users are saying about you can be as simple as doing a Google search. Jen Beltz of Front Burner PR in Portland, Maine, advises doing that regularly. “It doesn’t cost a cent. If you see something on a blog posting, get on it fast,” she says. “You always want to keep an eye out and be defensive.”

Perhaps the most difficult part of coming across a bad review is getting upset. Says Beltz, “Instead of bickering, just be gracious. Put the focus on what you can do to make it better and not what a lamebrain you think the person is.” Reaching out to a person who might have a legitimate complaint can earn you a customer for life.

If a review is blatantly untrue or if you can trace the email address back to a competitor, you might have some recourse through the site where it’s posted. Serato says, “It’s time consuming, but you have to try to contact the site to have them remove it. A good site usually [will].”

Many sites will let the restaurant owner or chef respond to a review, but not all sites welcome your input. “Traditionally on Chowhound, comments or responses from chefs or restaurateurs have been considered inappropriate. The moderators allow restaurateurs to correct incorrect information, but they do not allow a sales pitch. And they don’t allow responses to customer complaints,” says Goldman. Goldman also cautions against recruiting customers to post positive reviews for you. That’s a tactic that Chowhound moderators are on the lookout for. “It is emphatically not that we don’t want positive comments; it’s that we want credible comments. It’s difficult to trust a review from someone who was sent by the chef,” says Goldman. Take the time to check each site’s etiquette and posting guidelines before replying to reviews or discussions.

In the end, the best way to deal with the occasional negative review online is to counterbalance with legitimate positive reviews. On his Web site at anaheimwhitehouse.com, Serato posts more than 50 professional reviews of his restaurant. When you do a Google search for “Anaheim White House,” those good reviews show up. “Use technology to be able to override any of the negative things you get,” Beltz advises. “If a lot of people did that, then those negative occasional things would become a blip on the radar.” 

5 Web sites worth tracking: 


This site is always hopping with lively discussions on restaurant and food recommendations. Search the Chowhound boards for mentions of your restaurant. Many of the users here are well versed in dining and  provide insightful comments.


This city guide Web site covers a lot of local restaurants within its major metro area scope. It features editor’s picks, ratings and user reviews.


TripAdvisor covers hotels and restaurants worldwide and is a popular site for travelers and tourists that are looking for restaurants at their travel destinations. User reviews on this site don’t pull punches.

Yahoo! Local

Yahoo! search engine users are familiar with the reviews that pop up along with local restaurant search results. With many Internet users using local search, these reviews may be some of the first to pop up.


A relative newcomer to the scene, Yelp has made a big splash. It covers a limited number of cities, but its user reviews can be very far reaching. A helpful Business Owner’s Guide gives a list of do’s and don’ts for reacting to reviews on the site.


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