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I was disturbed when a member forwarded me this email from a restaurant that was soliciting reviews in exchange for gastronomical compensation. By request from the recipient, I’m paraphrasing and not quoting directly.

The free meal is given if:

1. the customer gives the restaurant 5 stars on TripAdvisor
2. the customer likes the restaurant’s Facebook page
3. the customer uploads photos and positive comments on “Restaurant Buzz Seoul” and other social media platforms

I run the above-mentioned group on Facebook, “Restaurant Buzz Seoul.” As of this writing, we don’t charge anyone to post (though that’s being brought into reconsideration). We DEFINITELY do not play favorites nor allow fake reviews.

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RBS has a team of admins with our own private secret FB group, where we discuss these matters. We have a vigilant group of members who police the group for fraudulent posts.

It’s standard practice with bloggers–and even with journalists–to ask for reviews or articles in exchange for freebies. Where it gets unethical and downright fraudulent is when they dictate the quality of the review in exchange for compensation.

Distinguishing Fraud

On TripAdvisor, any type of compensation for any type of review, good or bad, is fraud.

These are what TripAdvisor considers fraud (emphasis added):

  • Writing a review for their own business, or for any property the reviewing party owns, manages, or has a financial interest in.
  • Utilizing any optimization company, marketing organization, or third party to submit reviews.
  • Impersonating a competitor or a guest.
  • Offering incentives in exchange for reviews of their business, including discounts, upgrades or any special treatment.
  • Asking friends or relatives to write positive reviews.
  • Submitting reviews on behalf of guests.
  • Copying comment cards and submitting them as traveler reviews.
  • Selectively soliciting reviews (by email, surveys or any other means) only from guests who have had a positive experience.
  • Pressuring travelers to remove a negative review on TripAdvisor.
  • Asking guests to remove their reviews in return for a discount or incentive.
  • Prohibiting or discouraging guests from posting negative or critical reviews of their experience.

On RBS, we ask that reviewers state if they’ve received compensation for their review. We do this on this blog as well. Gemma at Fat Girl does it. That’s the ethical standard.

This pisses me off personally.

It devalues the reputation of RBS, a group I’ve worked on for years. All we have is our reputation. You won’t believe the headaches we put up with to maintain this crowd.

It’s also similar to what my ex-partner did at the BBQ pub, which ultimately led me to walking out.

I know that tour companies in Korea game the reviews on TripAdvisor, as I’ve heard the owner of one Seoul tour company drunkenly brag at a party about doing so. That may also be why ZenKimchi Korea Food Tours went from #5 to #11 in a short span of time–because we don’t play the review fraud game.

In Nothing We Trust

If you’re keeping count from past posts, this knocks out the following sources to trust in Korea:

  • Korean language blogs
  • Korean language media
  • English language Korean media (sometimes)
  • Social media in Korea
  • The Michelin Guide
  • TripAdvisor

At RBS, we’re getting even tougher on posts to filter out this behavior. It may be a hopeless battle, but we’ll do our best. We may change our system soon in an extreme way to filter out the crooks from the honest restaurateurs.

To the owners of the restaurant

Listen, I know how hard it is to run a restaurant in Seoul. I’ve run two of them. Even though I created Restaurant Buzz Seoul, I resisted the temptation to stuff it with fake positive reviews. I didn’t delete the negative ones, even from the people I knew have a personal beef with me.

That’s called ethics.

I’m sure you’re good people. I’ve heard privately from someone I trust that your restaurant is good. I’ll assume you weren’t aware of how bad this is. Even if other Korean businesses practice this, you are above this. You may have contracted services of an ethically questionable promoter, which my ex-partner did.

Here are some best practices:

  • It’s okay to offer free meals. Just don’t require positive reviews in exchange.
  • In fact, don’t even require reviews. I’ve been on both sides of this, as a reviewer and a restaurateur. Trust me. This works.
  • Tell customers that they can win a free meal if they add their names to your newsletter. Have a business card jar at the checkout counter with a sign stating that. Make sure the customers KNOW they will be on an email list. Then open a free MailChimp account and update your customers frequently. Send them friendly reminders to review your restaurant honestly. This is free, and it works.
  • TripAdvisor has a feature where you can email your customers for reviews ethically. Use it.
  • Don’t be afraid of negative or mediocre reviews. In fact, people generally only give reviews if they’ve had extremely positive or negative experiences. Negative reviews I see as opportunities to turn things around. If you respond professionally and address the issue promptly, you won’t believe how this positively affects potential customers’ view of your business.
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