VOX POPULI: Opaque systems make it difficult to trust restaurant review websites

When asked how he could tell if a restaurant was good or bad before eating there, Japanese writer Shotaro Ikenami (1923-1990), who was known as a connoisseur of food, said: “ Speaking of restaurants, no matter the type, you can tell (their quality) especially when you see the appearance of the storefront.

The episode is included in his book “Otoko no saho” (The ways of men).

However, Ikenami said he could not explain precisely how he distinguished between good and bad restaurants. This comment seems to reflect the knowledge Ikenami has acquired from visiting many restaurants, good and bad, over the years.

I wonder what he would think if he was alive today and seeing restaurant review sites.

Tabelog and other peer-to-peer restaurant review sites have grown by playing on consumers’ aversion to spending money on unsatisfying experiences. The restaurant rating system, based on anonymous consumer reviews, has become a basic tool for people to decide where to eat.

This is why the recent decision of the Tokyo District Court on a claim for damages brought against the operator of the Tabelog site was surprising.

A Korean barbecue chain sued Kakaku.com Inc., claiming its ratings were unfairly lowered on the grounds that it was a restaurant chain. The court ordered the site operator to pay nearly 40 million yen ($296 398) in damages to the plaintiff.

The court acknowledged that the change in the algorithm for calculating ratings on the Tabelog website had led to lower sales at the barbecue chain’s outlets.

If the grades are determined by an opaque system, it is useless to pay attention to small differences in the grades.

These sites offer social and visible word-of-mouth, so to speak, but their systems and operations may not be quite visible to the public.

While there are such review sites for a wide range of products and services, including hotels, home appliances, and movies, fake and staged reviews are discovered from time to time.

I’m not sure I’m imitating Ikenami and judging restaurants by their window displays alone.

When I’m looking for good restaurants on a business trip, I usually ask the hotel receptionists for recommendations. In the age of social media, however, hotel receptionists may rely on restaurant review sites when responding.

–The Asahi Shimbun, June 19

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that covers a wide range of topics, including culture, the arts, and social trends and developments. Written by veteran writers from Asahi Shimbun, the column offers helpful perspectives and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.

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