Thursday 19 July 2012

Online reviews and the race to be first

Melbourne Writers Festival

A quick plug on a related issue: I'm speaking at the Melbourne Writers Festival this year, as part of the New News conference. The panel, called Everyone's a Critic, will be discussing criticism and the effect the online world of blogs, social media and crowdsourcing is having on professional criticism. As well as me the panel will feature Ed Charles, Alison Croggon, The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones, freelance travel writer Tom Neal Tacker and Herald-Sun restaurant critic Stephen Downes. The event is on Friday 24th August at 1pm at Fed Square and it's FREE but you need to make a booking (here). Hope to see some of you there!

One of the first food blog posts I clearly remember reading (a year before I started Melbourne Gastronome) was Ed Charles' September 2006 post about Lau's Family Kitchen, written ten minutes after he got home from the opening night. As a restaurant enthusiast largely unaware of the nascent food blogging scene at the time, I remember feeling really excited by the fact that I could already see photos and read descriptions of a restaurant I'd been anticipating for months, knowing that it'd most likely be some weeks (or possibly months) before I'd see a review in the newspaper. This excitement about what blogs could offer readers was a key inspiration for starting my own blog.

A desire to be seen as a pioneer with a finger on the pulse of what's new and shiny, coupled with the easy immediacy offered by the internet, means that the temptation to be the first to write online about a new venue (and to benefit from the resulting SEO perks) can be great. I'm no angel: I've been guilty of it myself a few times, when it's a place I've been particularly excited about (see, eg, my first glimpse of San Telmo post).

But the race to be first seems to be reaching new, hilarious heights in Melbourne. Take the case study of Nama Nama (the new Japanese cafe from Izakaya Den owners Simon Denton, Miyuki Nakahara and Takashi Omi): it opened its doors for lunch on Thursday 21 June. The Three Thousand review went up by about 2:30pm that same day, the Milk Bar review went up at about 9:30am on Friday, and the Broadsheet review went up around Friday lunchtime - all three within 24 hours of the venue trading. Nina Rousseau's review was published in Epicure this week, 26 days after it opened.

Or take the example of Seddon cafe Common Galaxia, which reportedly had reviewers from two websites show up at the door at 7am on opening day. Or the reviewer at another venue's recent opening day, asking only half-jokingly whether "any of those [rival website] bastards" had been spotted yet!

Some publications, particularly the old-school ones, have policies of waiting some weeks after a venue has opened before visiting to review it, even if it means getting gazumped by others: Zoe Curtis from the Herald-Sun confirmed to me that their policy is not to visit in the first month. And as Stickifingers pointed out when we were discussing this issue on Twitter, many pieces being referred to as "reviews" are more properly characterised as mere opening announcements, with fleshier stories coming later (I'd say though that all too often there *aren't* fleshier stories - after the initial flurry of fawning publicity when a place opens, most tend to drop off the radar).

The industry argument that it's unfair to rush to judge a place that's brand new and still working through its teething problems is countered by the view that if that you're open to customers and charging full prices, you're open to reviews. And in any event, reviewers tend to be overwhelmingly compliant and uncritical, only too happy to feel part of (and feed) the hype.

But c'mon, isn't this competitiveness getting just a tad ridiculous? In a recent interview, I pretentiously characterised the internet as providing a welcome democratisation of the public discourse about food in our city. The ability to widely broadcast opinion is no longer confined to a precious few, and many of the newcomers feel they don't need to play by the old conventions. But in terms of this race to be first, maybe a bit more common sense should prevail, hmmm?


Sprae said...

First! :)

But seriously, I agree that quality of any review is always preferable. Like movie reviews, it is best fresh but not required to be first.

I'd add that it's rare that food blogs re-visit restaurants to provide an update review. This leaves us with Urbanspoon and eatability sites that is up to date but is not something very light on details and quality.

Ed said...

It wasn't an opening party, just the first night. And it wasn't a review as such but writing about the chaos and the theatre of the first service. I guess back in 2006 it was novel and you are right that it has become competitive.

It's a shame so many so-called reviews are just puff and the old media have been slow to move with the times. They seem to drop in just after the first month is up but then it can take up to two months to publish by which time I'm fairly sure a venue will have evolved significantly.

Anyway, it'll be an interesting debate.

claire said...

Sorry Ed, made a mistake when I said it was an opening night party, now corrected. I was careful to describe what you wrote as a post rather than a review - indeed, what I liked about that post was that you specifically raised the question of whether or not it's fair to judge a venue on its first night.

Looking forward to the debate!

Kenny said...

Thanks ... food for thought. In my limited experience, the SEO benefits are undeniable. A piece I did on seafood extender has become a Google go-to article.

Sprae said...

Here's a thought. Should a new restaurant be reviewed at least twice? Then followed by annual updates?

leetranlam said...

Claire, I'm so excited about your panel at writers festival! If I wasn't at work when I first saw your name on the program, I probably would have been audibly !!!!!!!!!!!! about it! Congrats on being on the same panel as Sasha Frere-Jones (total hero of mine) & can't wait to hear your insights on the day!

leetranlam said...

PS Interesting - I've been stung by two online "reviews"/stories about Potato Ghetto in Bondi and EACH TIME I WENT, IT WASN'T EVEN YET OPEN!!!!! And I was told it'd be weeks before it would be. This would be less annoying if Bondi wasn't a bit of a trek for me. Upside: there are lots of good Plan B dining options in Bondi.

Joyce @ MEL: HOT OR NOT said...

Interesting points you've made Claire. I'm of the view that if you're open, you're open to scrutiny from all your customers, whether they are reviewers or not. Before I started blogging I'd tell friends 'I went to this new place that's fantastic, you should try it'. Obviously the difference now is that often my opinion is public.

As a blogger who doesn't blog for a living, I don't aim to be a news source but I hope readers like what I write because of my particular point of view. It'd be time-consuming and too expensive to try and get to every new place that opened within the first few days just so you can be first online.

I've also worked out that if you carefully read the reviews that are aiming to be news sources, often they are not reviews but descriptions of fitout, menu items and background info. That's fine but that's not what I'm aiming to do.

Fitzroyalty said...

A lot of these 'reviews', as others have correctly said, are not reviews but regurgitated press releases that discuss interior design but share no experience of the food.

There is SEO benefit in being first or early to publish but you burn your reputation with audiences if you trick them into visiting your site but don't provide any useful information.

BurgerMary said...

From what I hear, some online publications are now attempting to visit venues before construction has even finished. As I understand it, there is fierce competition between the many freelance writers who work for online mags to grab the venue first, or risk not being paid. So, it's the writer's responsibility to find and break the story, rather than being given an assignment. This only serves to exacerbate the "haste".

As a reader, what I am now missing from publications like Broadsheet are pics of the actual food. In a rush to be the first, you may get 8-10 photos of the space, then a single photo of a dish that the kitchen has been asked to prepare for the photoshoot. Really, I'd rather see images of the dishes, and it's a real shame this is no longer happening.

foodnutzz said...

Love the article.

I agree the race to be first is competitive and we love to read it but I do agree that revisiting is required as first day tradings can bring little challenges an owner may not have more than one visit does give a more rounded review.

Trouble is this race to try the hottest new restaurant/cafe can also cause some perfectly amazing places to get lost in the 'hype' of what's new...sometimes tried & true is just as good, & sometimes better, than brand new! So we shouldn't forget to revisit our old favourites too.