Amex and TripAdvisor's push for credible reviews
THE credibility of online reviews has come under attack so many times that it is hard to know which, if any, to believe.
Go to an unfamiliar city, look up a promising restaurant and, almost invariably, there will be a sheaf of reviews celebrating the food, ambience and service.
But, then, a smaller group of commenters will say the enthusiastic reviewers have no idea what they are talking about, and that the place is really lousy.
Maybe the fans are really touts, who have been bought off by the owner with free desserts; maybe the critics are from competing establishments. It is impossible to know. You might as well choose where to eat by flipping a coin.
If readers knew that the reviewers had really been to the restaurant in question, it would not solve all the credibility problems, but it would be a step in the right direction.
That is the benefit of a new programme that TripAdvisor and American Express (Amex) introduced on Tuesday.
Amex card members can sign in to a new part of the review site and get the opportunity to evaluate the places they patronise.
Next to their write-up will be stated, "Amex Card Member Review". The reviewer might still be a friend - or enemy - of the establishment, but at least he really went there.
"Card members trust other card members' recommendations," said Mr Leslie Berland, Amex's senior vice-president for digital partnerships and development. "Their views, their insight, what they're doing, carries weight and relevance."
The advantages of the new system are obvious for the review site, which has had its share of embarrassments.
The most recent episode involved a new fish restaurant called Oscar's, by the English seaside. It was lavishly praised; the waiters would supposedly dive right into the water to catch dinner.
But even as the reviews piled up, would-be patrons would get to the restaurant and find an empty alley. The hoaxer reportedly thought that a friend's hotel was being targeted through grudge reviews from competitors, and wanted to prove how ridiculous the system was.
Reviewers will get something out of the new system, too. Amex will channel the data from reviewers back to them, in the form of information on "hot spots" - people like you like X, so maybe you should try Y.
They will also get special discount offers, which will show up as savings on their cards. This will in turn have obvious advantages for retailers and service providers.
But those who worry that their doings online are already being tracked too closely should probably stay away.