Category Archives: Business Communication

Gaming TripAdvisor

Although my main project these days is focused on linguistic creativity and humor in social media, I’m still very interested in all things review-related.  My friend Michael just sent me this great link about how a VICE reporter “gamed” TripAdvisor by creating a fake restaurant profile on their website.  Although this was not exactly his intention going into it, in just over 6 months, his fake restaurant (“The Shed at Dulwich” = literally, the garden shed that he lives in) became the highest-ranked restaurant in London!

The article is a highly entertaining read.  Or, if you prefer, you can watch the 18 minute video version available from the same link.  To me, the most clever parts were the restaurant’s “mood”-themed menu, as well his unexpected food-styling reveals (“whipped cream quenelles” made from shaving cream & “scallops” that were actually round white bleach tablets).  As a consumer, I know that I am totally a sucker for exactly these kinds of conceits: sexy food pics and a conceptual menu.  I was especially interested to learn about how TripAdvisor responded (at the end of the article).

And on a different topic, I just remembered a recent conversation I had with business writer, Tara Ramroop.  We talked about how language shapes workplace culture: a very relevant topic, but something that not all businesses think about, or approach very systematically.  You can read more here.

Growth in research on the language of online reviews!

Two years ago  I wrote a post about how excited I was to see 2 presentations about online reviews – other than my own – at IPRA (the International Pragmatics Association), the largest international conference about Pragmatics, which is held biennially.  Interest in this topic continues grow as was seen at this year’s IPRA in Belfast, where there were 7 presentations on the topic.  (Incidentally, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland = total playground for sociolinguists!)

My colleague, Tuija Virtanen, and I organized a panel for this year’s IPRA called “Analyzing Prosumer Discourses: Consumer Reviews, Customer Feedback, and other modes of eWOM.”  The panel was international in scope, with speakers from Finland, New Zealand, Italy, Belgium, and the US.  Tuija’s presentation dealt with various ways of conceptualizing the rather abstract notions of responsibility and accountability as they are made relevant in consumer reviews: in her case, in book reviews on Amazon.  Michael Barlow’s corpus study examined differences between hotel reviews written by male and female TripAdvisor reviewers; interestingly, he found virtually no gender-based differences in variables such as word frequencies, review length, lexical variation, as well as the other variables he looked at.  Irene Cenni’s presentation built on her prior work, comparing TripAdvisor reviews written in Dutch, Italian, and English; this time with a particular focus on service encounters.  She had a number of very interesting findings, which she plans to publish soon – stay tuned!  The two remaining presentations (my own, and Maria Rosaria Compagnone’s) looked at businesses’ responses to restaurant reviews.  I focused on features of “linguistic impoliteness” found in restaurants’ responses to 1- and 2-star reviews, posted on both TripAdvisor and Yelp.  I showed examples of restaurant owners firing back defensive-sounding messages, which included features like sarcasm (“So much for knowing your Florida seafood.”), dismissing the reviewer’s comments (“As for the rest of it…whatever”) and excluding the reviewer from future contact (“Hopefully this reviewer will stay true to their word and make this their last visit.”).  I thought these responses were unprofessional…until I saw Maria Rosaria’s data! Maria Rosaria’s Italian restaurant owners posted much more aggressive and hostile responses on TripAdvisor – including one death threat!

Besides our panel, there were 2 additional presentations dealing with online reviews.  One of these was about extreme positivity in Airbnb reviews: the presenter focused on UK data, but the trends were nearly identical to what Judith Bridges and I wrote about in our Airbnb paper, published earlier this year.  The other was a more exploratory study examining differences in Chinese and Anglophone reviews and responses.

The next IPRA will be held in Hong Kong in summer 2019.  Will the number of online review-related studies continue to grow?  I’m looking forward to finding out! 🙂

NYT Story about UBER

I have a long list of topics that I have been wanting to blog about, but between dissertation defenses, conferences, and course-final assignments, it’s a busy time right now.  Hope to be posting at least once per month starting in May though!

In the meantime, this weekend, the NYT ran a great story about Uber.  Especially fascinating is how Uber is leveraging insights from both behavioral science and big data analytics to entice their drivers to stay on the road.  To do this, Uber relies on principles of “gamification,” which combine individualized income targets for drivers with the “ludic loop” = that state of mind that happens when you’re playing an addictive video game and the target goal is always just a tiny bit out of reach.

Whenever I take an Uber, I usually ask the driver a series of questions about their experiences working for the company.  It looks like I’ll be adding some new questions to my “informal interviews” about how drivers view the effectiveness of these targeted messages they receive.

Are there any bad Airbnb experiences?

My first experience with Airbnb was 5 years ago.  A group of us were planning to meet for a 4-day conference in Boston, and one friend suggested we rent a 2-story brownstone on Airbnb.  Her idea was that rather than staying in 3 separate hotel rooms, we could all save some money this way – and we could also see each other a bit more, since at that time, we were scattered across different parts of the world. The plan sounded good to all of us.

Our Airbnb host was pleasant young woman who lived on the ground level of the same building, and as she gave us the key and showed us around the 2 floors of our unit, she assured us that we could use anything and everything we found in the house:  the kitchen was fully stocked, the living spaces were filled with fascinating vintage objects… but the real highlight was our host’s eclectic collection of over 2,000 records.  She said we could play those too. (We took up her offer: the 5 of us stayed up really late one night, drinking wine, and listening to genres of music we didn’t even know existed.)  After our initial orientation, we never saw our host again, but every now and again, we could hear her footsteps below us (which, at least to us, felt more reassuring than obtrusive).

In the end, the house was a bit out of the way, and Boston was cold, so what we ended up saving on hotel rooms we probably spent in taxi fares.  But we definitely got to spend more time as a group – making breakfast together in the morning, and at the end of each day, lounging around comfortably in “our” living room, chatting, and catching up with each other.  It’s one of my favorite conference memories.

Since then, I’ve used Airbnb over a dozen times.  Sometimes because Airbnb was a more economical option than a hotel (Barcelona, Helsinki); other times because I wanted to stay in a particular neighborhood that didn’t even have any hotels in it (Chicago, Philadelphia); and a few other times, out of nothing more than a sheer sense of adventure (Bali).  All of these stays have been memorable – either due to some unique features of the property itself, or due to the host’s fun or quirky perspective which expressed itself in the property’s furnishings (like in our Boston house), or perhaps due to an unexpected interpersonal interaction associated with our stay (either with the host, or with other guests).

Of all of my Airbnb experiences, only 1 has been unacceptable.  And this seems to be the general trend.  For most people I’ve talked to, the overwhelming majority of their Airbnb experiences have been great…and sometimes even amazing. I’ve collected stories of Airbnb hosts picking guests up at the airport late at night, of making them breakfast or cooking them dinner, of showing them around the city, of introducing them to their group of local friends: in other words, experiences which involve some kind of actual “sharing” – as is implied by the broader label of “the sharing economy.”

However, most people who use Airbnb regularly have also shared at least one story of a not-so-great — or even downright-unpleasant — experience (a dirty property, a unit that looked nothing like what was advertised, an unresponsive host, etc.).  These experiences are certainly the exception rather than the norm.  But I always ask: “Did you leave a negative review on Airbnb’s site?”  And the answer, invariably, is “no.”

There are many reasons for this, as Judith Bridges and I discuss in our recent Current Issues in Tourism article: “If nearly all Airbnb reviews are positive, does that make them meaningless?”  As we explain, sometimes reviews that appear to be positive on the surface, actually reflect less-than-positive experiences.  We also provide a few tips Airbnb consumers can use for “reading between the lines” as they consult reviews on the site.

Viewing social media data from a qualitative perspective

When it comes to mining social media for information, I’ve observed that it’s quite unusual for folks from the business world to consider alternatives to “big data” approaches.   So I was delighted to see that, in this recent article from the Harvard Business Review, the authors argue that qualitative approaches to social media listening can generate new insights for companies.

This resonates with what I’ve been saying for the last couple of years.  When I’ve had opportunities to speak to, or work with, companies in the travel industry for example, I have been advocating a “small data” approach to the analysis of user-generated online reviews.  There is no question that  big data approaches can be useful in revealing large, general patterns of consumer behavior.  However, like the authors of this HBR article, I have found that close, careful, qualitative text analysis can yield very different types of contextually-relevant insights into consumer experience and sentiment.

To respond or not…What should businesses do about online reviews?

Last week I spoke with Sparksheet, a content/media/marketing blog, about my research on online reviews.  Among other things, I discussed some factors businesses should keep in mind as they develop a strategy for how to respond to reviews.  Coincidentally, the NY Times just ran a story about this very topic as well.  The main take-aways?

  • Businesses really can turn popular sentiment around by engaging with online reviews/ers in a variety of constructive ways.
  • Completely ignoring online reviews can eventually hurt a business.
  • Canned responses are usually not very effective.  To the extent that it’s possible, responses should be personalized.
  • Getting into a public argument online with a reviewer is usually not the best approach. (But see my earlier posts on “Facebook Reviews” and “People Hate them on Yelp” for some interesting counterexamples.)
  • Reviews and ratings can be powerful marketing tools. Buzzword of the day: it’s all about “relational capital.”

Facebook reviews

A few people have recently asked me if I’ve extended my research to reviews of businesses on Facebook.    And my short answer to that question is “no” (for all sorts of reasons) — but since this topic has been coming up a lot in the last few weeks, I’ll admit to being at least a little bit intrigued.

A friend who lives in another state told me about super negative experience she had this year with one of her local financial services businesses. She really wanted to warn others to stay away, but the only review forum she found for this business was on Facebook.  After taking a closer look, she discovered a couple of things – 1) all of the reviews were positive, and 2) it was not possible to post an anonymous review.  (Obviously, these two phenomena are related.)  Now this particular friend is a generally happy, positive person, and one who is not shy about speaking her mind…yet, she didn’t necessarily want to have her offline identity linked via her FB profile to her negative comments about this business.  Since it wasn’t possible to post a review anonymously there, she ended up not posting a review on FB.

A group of angry vegans in Ireland have shown much less caution than my friend.  When a frustrated restauranteur in Dublin posted a rant on Facebook about how vegan customers were being unreasonable in their expectations, a number of indignant vegans fired back in the reviews section of the restaurant’s FB page.  As reported here, the verbal volley between restaurant owner and online vegans continued to escalate on FB, with insults and (pseudo-) death threats growing increasingly more outrageous.  And as more and more vegans posted 1-star reviews, more and more supporters of the restaurant posted 5-star reviews.   In the end, this story went viral, people all over the world have now heard of this restaurant, and business is booming like never before.  Normally, insulting one’s customers online is probably not the best social media strategy for a business to have… but, as this case shows, there are rare instances where this kind of completely-over-the-top behavior leads to an unparalleled level of publicity.

People Hate Them on Yelp


A few months ago, I wrote about my interviews with owners and managers of local restaurants – many of whom were not at all shy in voicing their negative opinions about Yelp.  Part of their frustration, I think, comes from businesses’ inability to “opt out” of Yelp.   For example, one manager I spoke with said: “I wish I could remove my business from their site.”  But Yelp lists businesses whether they want to be listed or not.

I just learned about a West Coast restaurant that has been waging an anti-Yelp campaign and exercising its agency in an unusual way: by offering customers a discount if they post 1-star reviews of their business.  Yep, you read that right.  They are encouraging people to write negative reviews about their business on Yelp!

People Hate Us on Yelp

This tactic (which I mean in the Certeauian sense) simultaneously taps into some reviewers’ creativity and desire to write witty, parodic texts.

Here are some highlights:

Terrible.   They would not allow me to bring my own food from home and enjoy it in their warm and inviting dining room.

The service was way too friendly. I had to take a half day vacation due to the options. Way too authentic and reasonable too. Nothing like Olive Garden where you get all that bread and salad.

I don’t understand how this place is still even open! The place is too clean, there’s tons of alcohol behind the counter, and the food is good?

As one reviewer writes: “Brilliant way to stick it to Yelp.”  But at the same time, this tactic creates a conundrum for those reviewers who really do have a complaint with the establishment, since it may be difficult for readers to discern a “real” negative review from the dozens of “fake” 1-star reviews (many of which are ambivalent in the sentiment they express).


“drive-by Yelpers” and the Yelp filter

I’m amazed when people who use Yelp haven’t heard about the Yelp filter! For instance, 20 seconds into the trailer for the forthcoming documentary, Billion Dollar Bully,  several Yelp users are shown on camera saying “Filtered reviews? What are those? Are those the bad reviews?”

The short answer is that all reviews posted on Yelp automatically get screened by Yelp’s in-house filtering software.   This software uses an algorithm to determine which reviews seem to be legit (and those are the ones we get to see), and then “filters” those reviews which appear not to be legit (roughly 25% of reviews).  Interestingly, those reviews which have been filtered and identified as suspicious are still available to readers…but in order to view them, you have to scroll aaaaaaaaaallllllllll the way dowwwwwwnnnnn to the veeeerrrrrry bottom of the business’s listing on Yelp and then click on a small bit of text that says “ [# of] other reviews that are not currently recommended.”  How many users will actually bother to do that?  Probably not too many.

Recently, I came across an interesting study  in the online journal, First Monday, which compared a random sample of filtered reviews and non-filtered, visible reviews on Yelp.  While the author found no linguistic differences between the two data sets, he did find that non-filtered reviews tended to be slightly longer than filtered reviews.  He also found that non-filtered reviews were written by authors whose profiles tended to include photos of themselves (this was much less often the case for the authors of filtered reviews) – and that non-filtered reviews tended to be written by people who were prolific reviewers on Yelp with lots of Yelp friends.  The reviews that had been filtered were often written by a person who had only posted  1 review (or a few), and who had no (or very few) Yelp friends. In a story about Yelp from last week’s local newspaper, a Yelp spokesperson calls these kinds of authors “drive-by Yelpers.”

Is Yelping really helping?

Overheard this week:

  • 3 out-of-town business people explaining to their server how they finally decided on this particular restaurant, after checking out a number of other possible options located downtown: “We Yelped you guys before coming in.”
  • At a newly opened establishment. One server talking to a group of other servers: “I hear that Yelpers in this town are really vicious. Is that true?”

Besides being great examples of word formation processes in English, these bits of naturally-occurring language speak to the pervasiveness of Yelp in our daily lives.

This week, I launched Phase 2 of data collection for the latest project, which is looking at local businesses’ responses to online reviews.  So far, we’ve collected the data on whether or not (and to what extent) area restaurants post replies to reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp.  And I’m now following up by contacting businesses in our sample, to find out what they think about these reviews and how they go about dealing with them.  At this point, I’ve communicated with a handful of businesses on my list, and the general impression I’m getting is that businesses feel like reviews on TripAdvisor tend to be classier than those on Yelp.  As one person I spoke with explained, if someone is going to post a nasty, unfair review, it’s more likely to appear on Yelp than on TripAdvisor.  I’ll be speaking with more businesses this week to see if this impression is fairly consistent across the sample.

And I also believe it’s a just matter of time before we hear someone say: “um, that was really…Yelpful.” 😉