- On Tuesday, The Infatuation eliminated restaurant ratings from its website.
- Ratings have become much more complicated because of the pandemic, which has caused a new, constantly changing set of consumer needs to emerge.
- Because restaurants are forced to rapidly change their business models, menus, and more in response to an unprecedented business environment, ratings and reviews no longer reflect what a potential consumer would experience.
- Ratings are further complicated by the new political divide between pro-mask and anti-mask consumers, who want restaurants to handle the dining experience differently.
- Still, reviews and ratings systems like Yelp and Tripadvisor are trying to account for this new reality by adding safety indicators to business pages and search filters.
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On Tuesday, online restaurant guide The Infatuation eliminated restaurant ratings from its website, a move that reflects a new reality for diners and restaurants alike: Restaurant ratings no longer carry the weight that they did pre-pandemic.
Restaurant ratings were never an accurate predictor for what a diner's experience was going to be like at a particular restaurant. Reviews and ratings are influenced by factors other than the objective quality of a restaurant, including rating manipulation and fake users. Even so, reviews and ratings are absolutely critical to how a customer chooses which restaurants to patronize, and which ones to skip.
Recently, however, ratings and reviews have gotten much more complicated. Most restaurants have shifted from dine-in to takeout and delivery only. Those that have reopened have entirely new operational guidelines to follow, but those guidelines aren't exactly standardized, and they're always changing. Many have shortened and altered menus to deal with lower demand, supply chain fluctuations, and the fact that some foods, like sushi, simply don't deliver well. And because restaurants have to deal with new restrictions, shutdowns, or reopenings with little notice, their hours and other information are less likely to be accurate online.
Consumers who plan on dining in often want to know if tables are spaced out, if servers are wearing masks, and if other diners who've eaten out feel safe. Consumers who plan on getting takeout or delivery want to know if contactless delivery is an option and what pickup policies are. The cumulative rating of a restaurant does not reflect how well it has handled the pandemic from a potential customer's perspective. If a restaurant previously got high ratings for ambiance, presentation, and service, that won't necessarily translate to a takeout customer's experience.
In short, diners don't know what to expect based on ratings. Ratings from the past no longer evaluate the things that current diners care about. And recent events have created two major subsets of diners that further complicate the ratings system: the mask-wearing and the anti-mask. Somehow, restaurants now must deal with consumers who perceive their safety guidelines as a political statement — and the effect they have on ratings.
For consumers who are politically opposed to wearing masks, or who believe that the pandemic is a hoax — a significant enough portion of the population that they've caused real problems for businesses — new safety measures such as requiring a mask have become a point of conflict. For a consumer who wears masks, a restaurant rating from an anti-mask consumer is counterproductive. For an anti-mask consumer, the same is true for a rating from a mask-wearing consumer. Either way, restaurant ratings are now subject to political anger based on the safety measures they choose to implement.
Consumers used to largely want the same things when choosing a restaurant: ambiance, service, and food. Now, those needs are all over the place, ever-changing, and polarized by political belief. If ratings were at times inaccurate before the pandemic, the pandemic has made them all but irrelevant.
However, major ratings sites like Yelp, Tripadvisor, and Google have no current plans to discontinue their ratings systems. Instead, they're adding new features to address customers' changing needs. One such need that has emerged during the pandemic is the demand for clear, accurate, and updated information about the exact safety measures a restaurant is taking. Yelp added coronavirus safety sections to business pages, as well as a status banner modifiable by the business owner. Tripadvisor now allows users to filter by safety criteria when they search for businesses.
As regulations, expectations, and routines eventually normalize, so will ratings systems. But now may be a good moment for consumers to understand the fundamental limitations of using numbers to evaluate a subjective experience.
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