How Restaurant Review Sites Are Changing the Way We Dine

Researching a Restaurant Now Comes Before Dining Out

Young couple seated at bistro table both looking at his phone

Robert Alexander / Getty Images

Technology has impacted almost every aspect of our lives, and the restaurant industry is no exception. As more and more customers turn to the internet for information, restaurant review sites are changing the way we dine.

Choosing Restaurants Online

Customers have more options than ever when deciding where to eat. According to the U.S. National Restaurant Association, there are more than one million restaurant locations in the U.S., and in 2018 restaurant industry sales topped $825 billion.

With this many choices, the majority of consumers now look to online restaurant review sites and social media for recommendations on where to dine, especially when traveling.

According to a 2018 international TripAdvisor survey of 9,500 restaurant customers, 94 percent of diners in the U.S. use online reviews as a basis for deciding where to eat.

The statistics are similar in other countries: 89 percent in the U.K., 90 percent in France, 91 percent in Spain, and 93 percent in Italy do the same.

The survey also reveals the increasing usage of mobile phones to check for places to dine; up to 80 percent of customers in some markets regularly use their phones to research nearby restaurants. Most respondents also expressed a preference for using the internet to make online reservations or place orders for food delivery.

Restaurants Are Adapting to Technology

Given that customers increasingly prefer to communicate online, restaurants that do not have an adequate presence on the internet are at a disadvantage when it comes to acquiring new clients. To stay in touch with customers, most restaurants now have websites and/or use social media applications such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, as well as signing up for online lists such as Yelp, Yellow Book, White Pages, TripAdvisor, Urbanspoon, etc.

In addition to displaying hours of business, addresses, and contact information, restaurants use the web to post menus, allowing potential customers to review dining options and check for offerings that cater to specific dietary or nutritional requirements, such as gluten-free and dairy-free selections, healthy choices, etc. The TripAdvisor survey also revealed that online photos of menu offerings had a substantial influence on dining decisions.

Social Media Is Leveling the Field for Restaurants

Social media has enabled smaller restaurants to more effectively compete with national chains that have large advertising budgets. Social media marketing is inexpensive and allows businesses to connect with customers in a way that was previously impossible.

Restaurants use social media to incentivize customers with promotions, obtain instant feedback via reviews, generate buzz, and (hopefully) spread positive word of mouth, for example, by:

  • Thanking followers by offering discounts or holding a contest
  • Asking for feedback on a new or special dish
  • Offering social media followers special deals such as free drinks or appetizers
  • Rewarding customers who tweet about their dining experience
  • Using Pinterest to broadcast pictures of menu items

Positive Online Reviews Are Crucial

While new restaurants have always been at the mercy of reviews, social media, particularly restaurant review sites, have given customers the ability to instantly communicate their dining experiences, whether positive or negative. Given that consumers are better informed than ever, positive reviews are crucial to a restaurant's success. According to Modern Restaurant Management:

  • 34 percent of diners rely solely on reviews when choosing a restaurant, rather than checking the restaurant's website or social media pages
  • 81 percent of female customers will not patronize a restaurant that has reported issues with cleanliness
  • A restaurant with a half-star improvement in rating (on a scale of one to five) is much more likely to be full during peak dining hours

Just as important is the ability to deal with negative reviews. On any given day, a customer may have a bad restaurant experience due to equipment failure, staff shortages, or other issues that may be unavoidable. However, neglecting to respond to a bad review or, worse, arguing with the reviewer online is likely to exacerbate the problem, further alienate the customer base, and impact the restaurant's bottom line.

The Problem of Fake Reviews

Unfortunately, the importance of online reviews is too much of a temptation for many business owners, who resort to posting false reviews to increase customer traffic. Some even resort to creating false negative reviews of competitors. On a larger scale, businesses can pay for individuals or even offshore "review farms" to post large numbers of phony positive reviews to help establish higher ratings.

Take, for example, the London man (whose day job was to pen fake restaurant reviews for TripAdvisor) who registered his backyard shed as a restaurant on TripAdvisor and managed to get everyone he knew to post fake five-star reviews, eventually propelling "The Shed at Dulwich" to the top of the TripAdvisor ratings.

While the practice cannot be completely eliminated, sites such as TripAdvisor have developed tracking systems that attempt to detect false reviews by examining the source of the posts. For instance, sometimes review farms can be identified by internet traffic patterns that show large numbers of positive reviews originating from a specific overseas location.