As content marketing specialists, an enormous amount of our work is dedicated to helping businesses improve their online presence.

Whether it’s a simple search, Facebook or Google reviews, or TripAdvisor ratings, being at the top of your game carries a huge amount of value. At the murkier end of our industry, there are plenty of people who find ways to get their online rankings up artificially, from getting their friends to post glowing reviews to paying students to fabricate positive experiences.

But something we spotted this week is on a different scale entirely. Working as a fake reviewer at £10 a time, Oobah Butler became fascinated by TripAdvisor. Having posted fake reviews himself, he began to suspect that many of the reviews were in fact fake – and that the rankings couldn’t be trusted at all.

So the natural next step was to set up a fake restaurant and get it to the top of the TripAdvisor rankings for London, of course. The video of his experience is fascinating – click here to watch it and read what else he has to say about the whole bizarre experiment.

Fascinatingly, when he finally had to give in and let some customers through the door (or gate, in this case), it was incredible to see them raving about the food – which, it transpired, was simply microwave meals garnished with “micro greens” (chopped up salad).

A case of The Emperor’s New Clothes, perhaps.

What does it mean for real businesses?

The Shed at Dulwich is obviously an extreme case. There’s no real career in creating a fake restaurant and getting it to the top of TripAdvisor, and nor is it a long-term project: the game is pretty much up when you have to open for bookings. But the experiment does raise quite a number of questions for anyone using TripAdvisor, whether for business or as an individual looking for the best places to eat, sleep or visit.

First of all, it’s widely acknowledged that reviews on TripAdvisor need to be taken with a pinch of salt. But there’s also an assumption that on balance, with enough reviews in the pot, the results will be fairly representative. The unfairly poor reviews should be balanced out by the biased input of the owner’s mates. The Shed suggests that may not always be the case.

The second obvious question, then, is how widespread are fake reviews? Is everyone doing it? We’ve all been to restaurants or hotels that have a great score, expecting to have a wonderful experience, and come away wondering how it all went so wrong since the last reviewer was there. Similarly, plenty of people have looked at the overall rankings for their local area and spotted their favourite place struggling near the bottom of the table while those which don’t seem so reliable are sailing away at the top. Is it all down to dishonest reviews?

Thirdly – and most importantly for business owners – comes the question: should I be doing it too?

Well, we can’t answer that one (sorry). It’s down to you and your conscience, in the end, whether you give the ratings a helping hand or leave it to your genuine customers. Of course, if you’re getting numerous stinking reviews, perhaps it’s time you took a look closer to home and worked out why.

But if you’re getting good feedback on the shop floor which somehow doesn’t seem to translate to your online presence, there are plenty of honest and ethical ways to sort this out – which don’t involve paying students, or indeed running a non-existent restaurant for six months and serving ready meals to blindfolded hipsters.

Want to know more? We’d be happy to help – just give us a call.