Can Restaurants Overpower Online Food Reviews?

In a story called “Bloggers, We Will Bury You,” Restaurant Hospitality magazine speaks to chefs and restaurateurs about the new companies that have been set up to manage their online reputations:

You’ve had to put up with the zero-accountability blogging phenomenon for years. But now a new option has emerged: you can hire an independent, third-party company to manage your online reputation. Their promise: No matter what a disgruntled customer, former employee or competitor posts about your restaurant, the online reputation management company will make it difficult for potential customers to find those negative references on the web.

These “online reputation managers” use search engine optimization to make sure that their clients’ official sites appear early in search results on Google, Yahoo, and AOL searches. But that’s not all they do:

They monitor all web content about a client like a restaurant, quickly analyzing it to separate the good from the bad. Then they apply sophisticated search optimization techniques to content containing positive mentions. This causes these pages to appear higher in a potential customer’s search results. Doing so also causes pages with negative mentions get buried deeper in the results list. Ideally they are pushed onto the second or third pages of search results that are returned.

It’s pretty shady business, but these search engine optimization techniques are totally legal. However, things would get really dubious if the “online reputation managers” were also creating positive content on restaurant review sites such as Citysearch and message boards like our own Chowhound (though ’round these parts identifying shills is priority one).

The article states, “It’s not necessary to write fake positive material,” but I’d be wary of ORMs nevertheless. The service costs around ”$1,000 per month for a small business, less for an individual.” Sounds like enough to buy quite a few positive “user reviews.”