A key feature of e-commerce sites is the reviews from people who have used them previously. Such recommendations or warnings are even more important online than in the physical world, because it is much easier to set up a virtual shop than a real one, which makes scams a far greater risk online. However, the enhanced importance of site reviews also increases the incentive to create false ones. A cautionary tale about just how misleading reviews can be is provided by an entertaining post on Vice. In it, the journalist Oobah Butler describes how he turned a non-existent eatery into TripAdvisor’s top-rated London restaurant. Or at least that’s what he claimed. We should admit, up front, that since this story is about faking stuff on the internet, we should at least be open to the idea that the story of this faked restaurant review might also be… fake.
Butler had the idea after earning money writing fake positive TripAdvisor reviews for restaurants he’d never been to. He started to wonder how many of the other positive reviews on TripAdvisor were similarly bogus. He idly considered whether it was possible for an entire restaurant to be fake — that is, non-existent despite all the positive reviews. And then:
one day, sitting in the shed I live in, I had a revelation: within the current climate of misinformation, and society’s willingness to believe absolute bullshit, maybe a fake restaurant is possible? Maybe it’s exactly the kind of place that could be a hit?
In that moment, it became my mission. With the help of fake reviews, mystique and nonsense, I was going to do it: turn my shed into London’s top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor.
There was nothing particularly sophisticated about Butler’s methodology: he simply used lots of fake positive reviews, posted by real people on different computers so as to fool TripAdvisor’s anti-scammer tools, to drive up the venue’s ranking. He bolstered the plausibility of “The Shed at Dulwich” by creating a Web site — theshedatdulwich.com — and a suitably pretentious menu:
Instead of meals, our menu is comprised of moods. You choose which fits your day, and our Chef interprets that. We can also tailor dishes for special occasions and at extra cost.
A deconstructed Aberdeen stew; all elements of the dish are served to the table as they would be in the process of cooking. Served with warm beef tea.
Butler included a few photos of dishes, still visible on the home page of the Web site. They look appetizing enough, but in his Vice post describing the project, he reveals that they are made out of things like bleach tablets, and plastic sponges covered in paint. One image shows a poached egg resting on a slice of bacon — except that the bacon is actually Butler’s naked foot.
The Shed started out in April this year with a TripAdvisor ranking of 18,149, the worst restaurant in London, according to the site. So Butler piled on the reviews, and watched his ranking rise. The phone began to ring: people wanted to reserve tables at this non-existent restaurant. Butler told them it was booked up for weeks. Emails begging for bookings arrived, as did job applications to work at the business, and free samples from companies in the food industry. After just a few months, The Shed at Dulwich becomes London’s top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor, with 89,000 search result views in a single day. As Butler writes in his Vice post:
A restaurant that doesn’t exist is currently the highest ranked in one of the worldâ€™s biggest cities, on perhaps the internet’s most trusted reviews site.
He then did two things. First, he told TripAdvisor that he had managed to game its ranking system completely. Here’s TripAdvisor’s reply:
“Generally, the only people who create fake restaurant listings are journalists in misguided attempts to test us,” replies a representative via email. “As there is no incentive for anyone in the real world to create a fake restaurant it is not a problem we experience with our regular community — therefore this ‘test’ is not a real world example.”
Well, maybe it isn’t a “real world example”, but it still shows how unreliable an online review system can be. In the case of The Shed, it wasn’t that a few of the opinions for the restaurant were bogus, but that every single one was, and that nonetheless the venue ended up as the top-rated eatery in London according to TripAdvisor. Not surprisingly, the restaurant’s page has been removed from the service, but there’s an archived version to give you an idea of what it looked like at the height of its fake glory.
The other action taken by Butler was that he opened The Shed for real. You can find out on Butler’s Vice post what happened when customers were served microwaved ready meals, surrounded by actors at other tables loudly praising the food, and a DJ playing restaurant sounds in the background to create the right ambience. It’s a great story, and a warning that we shouldn’t take at face value what we find online — or what we eat in the physical world. Assuming it’s all true, of course….