Kensington Market restaurant inundated with hundreds of 5-star reviews accused of buying them
Owner Ibrahim Nehme believes his competitors framed him by creating fake accounts
Hundreds of five-star reviews pouring in over a week may seem like a dream come true for a restaurant. But for the owner of Top Gun Steak and Burger in Toronto's Kensington Market, it's becoming a nightmare.
"In the morning I was so excited when I saw those reviews … I'm very, very stressed now," owner Ibrahim Nehme told CBC Toronto.
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The reviews started coming in about a week ago on the restaurant's Google profile and ramped up on Friday. There are hundreds of mostly one-sentence raves by users who have only reviewed the single restaurant, and whose profiles have little to no information about the user behind them.
"Their burgers are really good!" reads one review.
"I really liked it!" says another. "Good meal for everyone," another reads. Still another says: "Me and my son like that :)"
A reverse Google image search of a handful of the photos reveals one profile used a Japanese pop star's image, at least three of the women are from a Google search for "girl," and a number of others are stock photos of models. Some of the photos are duplicated, but have different names and profiles.
In addition to the five-star reviews, about a dozen one-star reviews have also appeared on the restaurant's Google profile, accusing the restaurant of buying the positive ratings. A Reddit thread started Friday morning had users debating back and forth about the authenticity of the reviews, and whether it was a competitor trying to sabotage the business.
Nehme said he immediately called Google to report the profiles as fake.
A few hours later, the restaurant added a comment under many of the reviews saying, "Our success also has attracted the unwanted attention of our competitors who are using fake accounts to consistently create false reviews."
Nehme later insisted that he had "settled the situation" but wouldn't say who he thought was behind the reviews, except to mention that he had a rivalry with a business nearby.
Fake reviews are big business
Google's policies state: "Your content should reflect your genuine experience at the location and should not be posted just to manipulate a place's ratings. Don't post fake content, don't post the same content multiple times, and don't post content for the same place from multiple accounts."
However, working as a cyber shill — creating and selling fake reviews — is big business, especially in China and India, says Sam Fiorella, author and professor of marketing at Seneca College. And the way it's done gets around Google's rules.
"They essentially have hundreds, and even thousands of people sitting in front of computers armed with fabricated profiles," he said. The employees are "manually logging in as this fake profile and leaving their review so it looks like a real person."
Fiorella explains that reviews are "a very powerful sales tool" as people often make decisions based on what others are saying online.
"Millennials, in particular the last couple of generations, are really growing up with this need to crowdsource," he said.
When consumers find out they can't trust "the wisdom of crowds" anymore, they rebel, Fiorella said. "So businesses that attempt to sway reviews in this way are going to find that it could really come back to bite them."
Fiorella said there's no way for him to know if Nehme's claim that the reviews are a set-up is real or not, but said it would be rare for a business to pay for positive reviews for a competitor.
In the end, Nehme said he isn't worried about any online backlash. He says his customers come for one thing — the food.
"We are busy, we are busy all the time," he said. "Since 1992 I've been in the restaurant industry — this is the first thing that's happened to me."
With files from Nathan Crocker