It's no surprise that in this information-rich society customers learn about products and services from a much wider variety of sources than ever before. It used to be advertising that would alert customers to a new product, but today they can be informed by blogs, social networks, review sites, and the information posted by friends and family.
But how reliable is all this online information in this era of ‘fake news’?
One London-based writer for Vice magazine, Oobah Butler, recently decided to test how robust the leading review website Tripadvisor really is. He registered a new restaurant called ‘The Shed’ and didn’t even supply the address for the supposed venue. He then added some fake food photos and asked friends to give glowing reviews for the restaurant.
The restaurant started slowly climbing the ranks of recommended restaurants in London. A few booking enquiries started arriving and Butler swatted them away by saying that the restaurant was fully booked for the next six weeks. This only created more interest as people started asking their friends if they had tried this new place where it is almost impossible to get a reservation.
What then made the situation even stranger was that food suppliers worked out the address for The Shed and started sending food samples. Job applications started arriving, and PR companies involved in restaurant promotion were contacting Butler asking if he needed their services.
All this happened without one plate of food ever being served - in fact the restaurant never even existed. But, what was even stranger, was that more reviews were arriving and pushing the restaurant further up the Tripadvisor charts. No doubt spurred on by the mystique of this impossible to find restaurant, some reviews were just aspirational, by people who wanted to show that they had eaten there.
For two weeks, The Shed was the number one recommended restaurant in London so Butler decided he had better invite some friends over for dinner. He served packaged frozen food and some understood the joke, but even then some of the diners didn’t get it and asked if they could make a future reservation.
Tripadvisor doesn’t appear to be too upset by the stunt. As they said in a statement, nobody has anything to gain by going to all the effort of creating a fake restaurant and then gaming the reviews. It’s unlikely that their charts will be filled with nonexistent restaurants anytime soon, but this does leave me with a few nagging doubts.
We are relying more and more on information we find online. When we search for information on a news story, sometimes a fake and distorted news story will appear before any real analysis. We regularly hear about drivers following their car GPS, even when the computer tells them to drive into a river. They drive into the river anyway, because the computer said that this is the right direction. In this case, Butler has proven that even though it requires a lot of effort to game reviews and recommendations online, it is possible.
How can we be sure that the photos we see before booking a hotel room are real, without experiencing it personally? How can we know that the photos someone uses on a dating site are not ten years old? How can we be sure that our social network is not just feeding me the news that I would like to hear and filtering out everything else? With so many bots spreading false information, could this process of gaming reviews be automated?
All of these questions about the veracity of online information need to be asked more often. The stunt with Tripadvisor is unlikely to affect their reputation as one of the leading restaurant and hotel review sites, but it does lead to a bigger question. Do we only trust information online because of the brand on the website or app and if so, what happens when it is users uploading information to that site?
Let me know what you think about trusting the crowd. How can we improve the quality of online information, especially when it is helping customers to make purchasing decisions?