Make or break: Just a few bad online reviews can spell disaster for restaurants


New research shows how negative reviews from the start may doom a business: “Popular restaurants get even more popular, and restaurants with some initial low ratings can stagnate.”


COLUMBUS, Ohio — Cultivating a positive online reputation is essential for pretty much any type of business in 2020, but restaurants are subject to a special kind of scrutiny. Nobody enjoys sitting down for a nice meal only to be given subpar food, and many people aren’t shy about letting the world know when they’ve had a less than stellar culinary experience. But, are just a few negative online reviews really enough to seriously hurt a restaurant’s reputation? Yes, according to a new study from Ohio State University.

Researchers say that if a restaurant receives a few bad reviews, it becomes far less likely to receive any more reviews in general. Essentially, eateries with high ratings usually enjoy a steady stream of new, positive comments; but those with low grades tend to stay stuck in the land of one- or two-star reviews.

“These online platforms advertise themselves as being unbiased, but we found that that is not the case,” explains lead study author Yasuyuki Motoyama, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at The Ohio State University, in a release. “The way these platforms work, popular restaurants get even more popular, and restaurants with some initial low ratings can stagnate.”

Reviews for roughly 3,000 restaurants located within Franklin County, Ohio, were analyzed for this study. All of the reviews were taken from either Tripadvisor or Yelp, and had been posted in May 2019. While the choice of that area may seem largely inconsequential at first, it’s worth noting that Franklin County is home to the headquarters of more than 20 major restaurant chains. Many within the food industry consider Franklin County a good representation of the larger U.S. market.

Each review was analyzed based on rating, geographic location, and local neighborhood socioeconomics (average household income). All in all, the findings reveal that restaurants with fewer reviews are also more likely to have a lower overall rating.

“The more reviews a restaurant received, the higher the average rating of the restaurant,” says study co-author Kareem Usher, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at OSU. “But this has implications: If one of the first reviews a restaurant receives comes from a dissatisfied customer, and people check that later and think ‘I don’t want to go there’ based on that one review, then there will be fewer reviews of that restaurant.”

The power of online reviews

It hardly seems fair, but the world of business has never been compassionate. Two or three bad reviews shouldn’t doom a restaurant to online notoriety. Yet online review platforms are set up to prominently display high-ranking businesses front and center. As such, establishments with lower ratings tend to fade to the background.

Meanwhile, restaurants with a high rating, or overall large number of reviews, are put in a position to succeed. These eateries are much more likely to rack up more reviews, which means that one or two poor marks won’t make much of a dent in their overall rating anyway.

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The study’s authors broke down their findings further: 17.6% of local restaurants with only one to four online reviews had a low Yelp rating. But, only 9.3% of restaurants with between five and 10 reviews could say the same. Regarding Tripadvisor, restaurants with only one to four reviews had a 5.6% higher chance of receiving a poor writeup. When a restaurant gained between five and 10 reviews on Tripadvisor, that percentage dropped from 5.6% to 0.6%.

Does income play a role?

The team at OSU also made another discovery. Restaurants in the poorer areas of Franklin County frequently feature no online reviews at all. The authors theorize that a neighborhood’s median income must have some influence over the occurrence of online reviews.

Still, no relationship was found between a neighborhood’s socioeconomics and average ratings among local restaurants in that area.

Professor Motoyama would like to see a more extensive study on this topic in the future. Ideally, the next investigation will include more areas of the United States. Nonetheless, he believes this research makes a strong case that just a few bad reviews can indeed have a big impact on a restaurant’s bottom line.

He hopes the study will spur online review platforms try and fix these issues.

“Maybe these online platforms can withhold reviews until a restaurant gets a certain number of reviews – say, 10 or more,” he says. “That way if there are two or three customers who are very dissatisfied with a particular experience, they are not directing the restaurant’s success or failure.”

The study is published in Papers in Applied Geography.

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