Restaurant Owner’s Guide to Online Reviews

On Friday I reviewed the online review websites. As a followup to that article, I wanted to mention this topic. I’m not sure how many restaurant owners read my blog. Probably not many. Nevertheless, I think what I have to say here could be of some benefit. And I don’t think this advice is being followed by many restaurants at all.

Do not ignore or underestimate the significance of online reviews. Your restaurant could struggle as a result. On the other hand, your restaurant could thrive because of what is online. Or better yet, your joint could go viral online!

I’ve been writing reviews online for several years, both here on my blog and on other websites. I’ve seen a lot of restaurants handle online reviews totally wrong and I’ve seen it done extremely well. I’ve also seen a lot of marketing blogs offer advice that is just plain wrong! Some of this is counter intuitive but I promise it is the way to go.

Claim Your Business Page

Go to the various review sites (yelp, urbanspoon, citysearch, four square, etc) and enter your business’ information. Sure, this is a no brainer. Enter your hours of operation, links to your website, menus, and any other information. But beyond that, make sure your address is correct. I cannot stress this enough. Many of these online review sites have iPhone, Android and Blackberry apps. These apps have location-aware technology that is very cutting edge. Your customers are using these mobile devices to find and locate your business. Make absolutely sure your address is correct and displays in the correct place on google maps. Many times I’ve seen google put a restaurant blocks down the street, or perhaps not list them at all. And here in the northern burbs of Atlanta, addresses can get squirrely when you have overlapping cities and zip codes (Johns Creek versus Alpharetta for example).

Specials and Coupons

Sure, you offer specials on your website and in other marketing. Why not offer something on the review websites? And I’m not talking something like a free Coke. Make your initial offer on the review sites something significant! Your goal here is to get reviewers into your restaurant. Give them a very tempting reason to go for the first time. More on this later.

Don’t Review Yourself

Do not, under any circumstances, review your own restaurant. Not only is this dishonest but it is pretty easy to spot and looks desperate. Even with your clever wording, people can tell. Just don’t do it.

Don’t Encourage Customers to Write Online Reviews

This is the counter intuitive part I spoke of earlier. This is also where most marketing blogs will lead you astray.

Maybe you’re a new restaurant and you’re frustrated that you’re not getting reviews. So you talk to some of your regulars and encourage them to go to yelp or urbanspoon and write reviews. Sounds perfectly legit, but don’t do it. For one thing, yelp openly discourages this in their business owner’s FAQ. And if it does happen, the review will likely get gobbled up in their review filter. But worse than that, many in the online review communities consider these to be “shill reviews”. They believe is it just the business owner writing reviews. Right or wrong, your restaurant may open itself up to ridicule by the community. I’ve seen it happen a lot. I cannot stress this enough… don’t ask customers to write reviews.

Reach Out to Reviewers

So you want to get credible online reviews? Ask for them! Seriously, just ask. Let’s say you opened a new barbecue restaurant in the northern burbs of Atlanta. No one is reviewing you online and you’re growing frustrated. Go onto the websites and find active reviewers who have visited other nearby barbecue restaurants. Send them a private message. Be polite and friendly and invite them to try your restaurant. No form letters, no spam, just a personal and sincere invitation to try your place. Should you offer a freebie? This isn’t necessary in my opinion but you could if you wish. Make it clear that you don’t expect a review, you just want them to try your place. Chances are… if they come, they will review you. And in addition to the review websites, reach out to local bloggers. Yeah, I’m a blogger so this is easy to suggest. A feature on a local or foodie blog is worth a lot.

Respond to Early Reviews

Good or bad, I suggest responding directly to your early reviews. If someone had a good thing to say, thank them! If someone had a bad experience, treat them like a customer who complains in your restaurant. Actually, you should probably do MORE than you would otherwise. Reviews online are seen my thousands of potential customers. While negative reviews are bound to happen, I think you should respond to them head-on. Offer to make it right or return their money. I’ve heard of businesses who have paid for an upset customer to go to a competitor. Are you willing to go that far to make things right? You ought to consider it!

Do not respond in an angry way to critical reviews online. The last thing you want is to piss off an already unhappy customer. The next thing you know your ugly private messages to that person are posted online in a forum for the world to see. Again, I’ve seen it happen.

I hope what I have to say makes sense. Consider it sincere advice from someone who is likely to review you one day! And even if you are not a new restaurant, pay attention to what is written about you online. Google yourself and see what the search engines think are important about your restaurant. The majority of the hits I get on my blog are from people searching for a specific restaurant I’ve written about.

Next time I’ll write about social media and restaurants. Until then… if you think I’m off base on my advice or have any questions or comments, leave them here or e-mail me at lee@rootsinalpharetta.com

4 Responses to “Restaurant Owner’s Guide to Online Reviews”

  1. Missed me? April 13, 2010 at 2:38 pm #

    “I’m not sure how many restaurant owners read my blog. Probably not many.”

    At least one. Remember?

    http://rootsinalpharetta.com/2010/03/cheeky-taqueria-at-avenue-forsyth/comment-page-1/#comment-52

  2. YankeeChef April 14, 2010 at 7:59 am #

    I am a restaurant owner/chef in Alpharetta and just happened upon your blog as you mentioned my restaurant briefly in a post. I, too, wrote a blog entry about this very thing but from a restaurant owner’s point of view. We seem to have very similar ideas about the online review world.

    I always check my reviews (almost on a daily basis) and try to respond to all reviews, good or bad. It is important, like you say, to respond in a positive matter. I never look at a bad review as a negative thing. In fact, I use them all to grow and improve my business. Keep up the posts. I have a response to your earlier article on health inspection reviews too. But I’ll put it there.

  3. Lee April 14, 2010 at 10:56 am #

    YankeeChef… thanks for the comment. Here is a link to his post:
    http://foodalong.com/?p=152

    Very timely that we wrote about the same thing. I left my comments on your blog. I’ll also shoot you an email tonight to introduce myself. I think we’ve spoken before.

  4. Freebie? April 14, 2010 at 6:44 pm #

    I believe in the saying that goes: “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

    But I believe that a free lunch is actually brewing here.

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