OpenRice reviews should be taken with a pinch of salt, say critics

OpenRice is the most widely used restaurant guide in Hong Kong, but it faces constant criticism from both sides of the dining experience, writes Charley Lanyon

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 March, 2014, 9:45am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 March, 2014, 1:09pm

Almost everyone who eats out in Hong Kong knows the online dining guide. They all have an opinion, not always complimentary, but there's no denying the site is comprehensive and widely used.

Fifteen years after former IT executive Ray Chung Wai-man founded the site with a group of friends in 1999, OpenRice now lists one million outlets worldwide. It has had 1.6 million reviews, mostly crowd-sourced, and more than 200 new ones are posted daily. This rise, however, has also brought accusations of unethical practices, victimisation of certain outlets and industry complaints about undue influence from inexperienced, or ignorant, reviewers.

OpenRice was not always the runaway success it is today. Its parent company closed a year after launch and Chung kept the website alive by working from home with minimal resources. Things began to look up after 2007, when the site was bought by digital media company JDB Holdings. The new owners revamped OpenRice, brought in advertisers and added features for restaurants to promote themselves and to enable users to make reservations online.

No matter how a restaurant engages with us as a client, they cannot change the reviews
Jan Wong, openrice managing director

As its fortunes improved, questions about the site's credibility began to surface among some of its faithful users.

Among the prominent names to turn their backs on OpenRice was K.C. Koo, a stockbroker turned full-time food blogger who writes Chinese-language reviews under the name KC Gourmet.

Koo's prolific and detailed write-ups - "I have more than 7,300 reviews on OpenRice, reviewing more than 7,200 restaurants. I think that's quite extensive, right?" he says - were so popular with readers that he decided to start his own food blog. That was also the time, however, that he began to pull away from the site.

"There were changes at OpenRice that I wasn't comfortable with," Koo says. "The credibility of the website was very high before, but when they sold the whole thing to JDB, they put in a lot of advertisements from the restaurants themselves and that affected the credibility of the website and my credibility as well."

On the new OpenRice, restaurants were invited to register with the site and, for a fee, they could take advantage of its reservation engine, TableMap, design a personalised webpage on the site, issue coupons and run promotions, and list their business under the Featured Restaurants tab.

Some users like Koo see this as an obvious conflict of interest but OpenRice managing director Jan Wong insists this is not the case.

"Our marketing and editorial teams are totally separate," Wong says. "No matter how a restaurant engages with us as a client, they cannot change the reviews."

In fact, Wong says they "often encounter restaurants asking if they can buy advertising to influence their reviews" and such requests are always rejected.

"We don't want to sacrifice our reputation for the short-term benefit of the restaurant," she says.

OpenRice's fiercest critics come from within the food and beverage business, insiders who take issue less with allegations of conflict of interest than with its model of user-generated reviews.

Much like US-based city guide Yelp and travel site TripAdvisor, OpenRice encourages reviews from ordinary users who post comments and pictures of meals they have had at restaurants.

In the early years, founder Roy Chung held up OpenRice as a principled operation to distinguish it from rivals, stressing that a team of editors would sort through each post to weed out "fake reviews" - those planted by restaurant operators to burnish the image of their own outlets, or to disparage competitors. But he quickly encountered a pushback from some people who felt that this would be contrary to the ideals of user-generated content and encroach on reviewers' freedom to comment.

These days, the pendulum of opinion has swung the other way with the loudest critics arguing that its restaurant reviews need greater oversight, not less.

"The biggest problem is that they haven't moderated the content enough," says chef-restaurateur Jason Black, who also runs Empire Media agency. "Sure there's a line between freedom of speech but there's a time that comes that they've got to protect the industry as well."

Industry insiders, Black says, have concluded that most reviews are "drivel"; the site "doesn't have the credibility any more that it initially had".

Unfortunately, customers may take the reviews seriously, which could unfairly hurt a restaurant.

"When a reader reads something in a [major publication] there's an assumption that the [writer] is qualified to write the article - that they've eaten that particular type of dish enough times to have a qualified opinion," Black says.

"On the other side of the spectrum an OpenRice reviewer may eat a dish once, and if they don't like it, will say it's a bad dish. Maybe it's the first time they've ever eaten it. It's not the restaurant's fault, it's the qualification of the person who's written the review."

One critic put it more succinctly: "You wouldn't buy a Porsche based on a review by someone without a driver's licence. Why would you listen to a restaurant review from someone who doesn't know food?"

Moreover, the clout of OpenRice has grown such that some restaurant operators hesitate to openly criticise the service. A restaurateur with an outlet in a Kowloon industrial building was so fearful of repercussions that he immediately insisted on anonymity in his interview.

When people in the industry speak out, he says, "they will put out bad reviews of your restaurant and stuff. I've heard it from quite a few people I trust".

He concedes he has never received any threats, but he's not taking any chances: "Sure, it might be anecdotal, but that's enough to frighten you."

Wong finds most of the criticisms ridiculous.

She says OpenRice has never edited its reviews. While all commentaries are read by an editor before being published, the process is simply to weed out "suspicious or incomplete" reviews.

If a review is rejected, the writer has 30 days to make changes and resubmit. Decisions to reject a contribution are typically made because the writer has made personal attacks by criticising restaurant staff by name, or failed to substantiate claims such as finding bugs in their food, by providing a picture.

OpenRice will also review a submission if a restaurant complains that it is not fair, Wong says.

Meanwhile, OpenRice has devised a mechanism to ameliorate the influence of inexperienced contributors, she says. Reviewers are ranked as Elite, Pro, Veteran, Novice, Rising or Trainee, based on the number of reviews submitted and how many are recommended by the editor. Their status is indicated by a little logo that appears next to their names - a crown for an elite reviewer; a medal for veterans and a diamond for pros.

Diners looking for more substantive reviews need only look out for more experienced contributors, Wong says.

But that doesn't go far enough to appease critics such as Black: "Just because people are prolific in their writing doesn't mean they know any more about the subject they're writing about."

As an example, he cites a contributor named supersupergirl, who comments on even the most mundane dining experiences, allowing her to notch up some 3,200 reviews.

"If they want to have a blog and write about everything you put in your mouth, fantastic ... But if you write on a review platform you're changing the quality of the platform," Black says. "Does the world really need to know what you think about your slice of toast in the morning?"

The anonymous Kowloon restaurateur remains convinced that the site manipulates reviews to make certain establishments look bad.

He has known first-hand of examples where a positive restaurant review was rejected due to a lack of pictures or specificity, but questions how many unfavourable reviews are carried even though they lack substance and photos.

Wong can only throw up her hands in frustration at such sideswipes: "From the users we hear OpenRice only publishes positive reviews, from the restaurants only negative. The truth is we publish both!"

But at the end of the day, it may not matter whether there's any credibility to the accusations lodged against OpenRice. Where most people are concerned, its primary use is as a restaurant listings guide.

"I'll check out which restaurant has the most smiley faces, which one is new, what photos they have and the price range," says local foodie and long-time user Michelle Kwok.

But she concedes: "I don't trust it fully; it is always only a reference."

Kwok is selective and takes some reviews with a pinch of salt. "For food under HK$100 the reviews are more honest," she says. "But for meals over HK$300, they're less honest and obviously fewer people review them."

Although OpenRice is increasingly used as a search platform, handy for looking up addresses, names and hours of operation, reviews on a site that receives more than four million visitors a month can't simply be dismissed.

All the same, Black is determined to try: "Everybody hates bad reviews. If it's a bad one from a journalist I respect I take it to heart, but if somebody writes it on OpenRice I just couldn't give a s***."

OpenRice now available in 10 markets

For all the criticism it has received, OpenRice is flourishing. Since its takeover by JDB Holdings in 2007, the site has expanded into nine other Asian markets: the mainland, Macau, Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Thailand. Between the sites they have about one million restaurant listings with 1.6 million reviews.

Next month, OpenRice plans an aggressive push into the mobile market with a photo-based app. Although details are still sketchy, the move will enable the site to capitalise on the "food porn" trend.

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