If you’re running a small business you know all about how important online reviews can be. Many of us check the ratings on popular sites like Yelp, Google, FourSquare and TripAdvisor before visiting a store, staying at a hotel or eating at a restaurant. A couple of reviews, bad or great, can make or break a business.
But how reliable are these sites, and how easily can they be manipulated? Sadly, easier than you may think. That was proven by a freelancer named Oobah Butler. Writing on Vice, Butler set out to make his garden shed the top rated restaurant in all of London on TripAdvisor.
It was all fake — and he succeeded.
Butler is no neophyte to manipulating online reviews. Back in the day, he admits he would take £10 from business owners to write fake, positive reviews of their businesses. So he decided to take things one step further. “In the current climate of misinformation, and society’s willingness to believe absolute bull***,” he wrote, “maybe a fake restaurant is possible? Maybe it’s exactly the kind of place that could be a hit?”
He chose the garden shed behind his house and renamed it “The Shed at Dulwich.” He listed it as an “appointment-only” restaurant to avoid fact checkers from investigating his residential street address. He bought a domain on the cheap and setup a quick website using a logo created by a friend. He photographed a bunch of hilarious, fake entrees using ingredients you would never want to ingest, including one snap of an egg resting on the sole of his foot (which was hidden in the shot).
I love this guy.
TripAdvisor validated the “restaurant” so off to work he went. Butler’s “restaurant” was initially ranked at 18,149 when set out to become number one. He enlisted his friends to write long and fake reviews. And lo and behold…his phone started to ring with prospective bookings! Why? Well, apparently, London restaurant-goers are always looking for the next best thing — and here was an “appointments only,” hush-hush place that had an air of exclusivity. How exciting!
The Shed at Dulwich jumped in the listings. Others noticed. People inquired about jobs. Public relations agents offered their services. Food companies sent free samples. Ultimately, Butler’s little place became London’s top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor. Encouraged by his success, Butler actually went so far as to serve meals to a few customers in the shed, who, according to him, left believing they had just eaten at one of London’s top restaurants.
In TripAdvisor’s defense, the company’s anti-fraud processes are targeted at people trying to get higher rankings for their existing businesses, not a fake business. Regardless of whether you believe Butler’s story — and I have no reason not to (other media sites like the Washington Post also reported on this story) — then the lesson is clear: ratings and review sites can be manipulated and they shouldn’t be entirely relied on as the ultimate judgment of a business. Ever the entrepreneur, Butler also likes to look at the bright side. “If I can transform my garden into London’s best restaurant, literally anything is possible.”