Have you been to The Shed at Dulwich? Probably not. Back in November of 2017, it was the number one ranked restaurant in London on TripAdvisor, beating out over 18,000 other establishments. If you tried calling in a reservation, you would be told that it was booked solid for months! But that's not even the craziest thing about London's hottest little eatery.
It doesn't exist.
That's right. The entire restaurant was nothing more than a hoax. A test to see if TripAdvisor could catch them, and the validity of online reviews in general.
The idea first came to Vice reporter Oobah Butler when he was being paid to write fake reviews for restaurants, despite having never eaten at any of them. It got him thinking of how many other reviews could be fake, and could even the restaurants themselves be fake? He was going to find out.
He decided to turn the shed where he was living into The Shed, a restaurant that would, according to his website, serve "moods" instead of meals. The food looked appealing (though the behind the scenes photos did not). He even bought a burner phone to act as the restaurant's landline. All that was left, was to get some reviews.
TripAdvisor has anti-scammer technology that flagged reviews that are all coming from the same computer. So he, like many other people who buy reviews, enlisted real people (in this case his friends and family) to write great reviews for his nonexistent restaurant.
After a few weeks of doing this and rising in the rankings, he started to get calls for reservations. People actually wanted to come in for dinner! When he tells them they are fully booked, they try using their jobs and connections to get a seat!
According to Butler, "the appointments, lack of address and general exclusivity of this place is so alluring that people can’t see sense. They’re looking at photos of the sole of my foot, drooling."
This strategy continues to work, until eventually in November of 2017, The Shed at Dulwich becomes the number one ranked restaurant in one of world's largest cities, on one of the world's most trusted review sites, despite having never served a single customer!
It's scary to think how much we can be manipulated by fake reviews. In the case of The Shed, the positive reviews skyrocketed them straight to the top. But what about negative reviews?
In my article on customer feedback, I talked about how bad reviews can affect a business's revenue. Butler's story shows us just how far you can take fake reviews. What is there to stop someone from using this method to hurt your business?
Sites like TripAdvisor say they use "state-of-the-art technology to identify suspicious review patterns". Yet The Shed calls into question how much faith we can put in these companies to ensure that their sites reflect the truth.
The Shed's profile on TripAdvisor has since been taken down, but you can see an archived version here. As you read through some of the comments raving about the great food they've never eater, and the wonder experience they didn't have, think about your business, and how much of your success you want to leave in the hands of sites like these.