What’s eating Korea’s restaurant reviews?

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What’s eating Korea’s restaurant reviews?


When Kim Hye-jin, a 28-year-old student, wants to find a special place for dinner, she typically goes to her favorite food blogs.

“It is just easier to find the most up-to-date information about new restaurant openings or places I didn’t know about,” said the self-professed “foodie.” “I feel like I have already tried most of the places that are quite well known.”

Kim says that, even if a blog is biased, she likes it when they provide details and photos of the menus, the kind of information most restaurant Web sites usually don’t.

But for another food fan, a 30-year-old office worker named Park, the untrustworthiness of online reviews is too much of a burden.

“Even I’ve posted not-so-sincere reviews, full of compliments for restaurants run by people I know,” Park said. “After having done that, how can I expect others to be truthful about what they write about their dining experiences?”

Which is the great restaurant dilemma in Korea - despite having more than 600,000 restaurants all across the country, with annual spending estimated to reach 50 trillion won ($47.2 billion), it is hard to find reliable information about the country’s dining establishments.

Most famous international guides like the Michelin Restaurant Guide don’t cover Korea, while Zagat has stopped printing its Korean books after a six-year run (it’s mobile partnership with Hyundai Card is still running, but its future beyond next year is up in the air). Online review aggregators like Yelp or TripAdvisor are barely known and little-used, if available at all.

On TripAdvisor, for example, the No. 3 restaurant in Seoul is a falafel shop in the Hongik University area in western Seoul - probably a fine place, but hardly famous in Korea.

Even Wingspoon, one of the best-known restaurant review Web sites, is being shut down by its operator, the dominant Web portal Naver.

Blogging for options

For most people, blogs are the go-to source for restaurant information. Bloggers can be very opinionated and subject, so people look for those with similar tastes, hoping for a good match.

However, several high-profile cases of bloggers being paid under the table for good reviews have greatly hurt their credibility for many, especially for restaurant owners.

“I don’t list my restaurant with any online review groups,” said the owner of an Italian restaurant in Samseong-dong, southeastern Seoul, who wanted to go by only his last name, Kim. “It only brings in people who demand a free meal in exchange of a good review.”

For some food experts, the problem lies in Korea’s relatively short history of consumer-led opinions.

“Korean consumers change their favorite restaurants based on what Web site is ‘hot’ at the moment,” said one industry insider. “It is essential to accumulate the ability to filter untrustworthy information.”

Although many Korean food bloggers know how to take pleasing photos of the food, often the vocabulary to describe the dishes clearly and specifically can be lacking.

As many bloggers just post what they had for lunch and dinner for fun, they end up describing their food experiences in most commonly used words - delicious or not delicious, salty or sweet, without much context.

“The Seoul restaurant scene is a vast jungle, wild and underexplored,” said Joe McPherson, a well-known food blogger in Korea and founder of the Web site ZenKimchi.

Another way people choose to keep up with the most trendy restaurants in town is from decidedly old-tech routes, like TV, radio and newspapers.

“Tasty Road,” a popular program on cable channel O’live, is hosted by two actresses, Park Su-jin and Kim Sung-eun. Since January, it has become a major source for diners looking for new places.

However, considering that it only looks at restaurants within one neighborhood each week, it ends up choosing restaurants that are relatively better in that particular town.


A Blue Ribbon alternative

One attempt to be that sort of filter is a group called the Blue Ribbon Survey, which aims to be a service similar to the Michelin Guide. Founded in 2005, the Blue Ribbon Survey is slowly expanding its presence, but it still has a long way to go before it is considered definitive.

Blue Ribbon combines popular voting and professional reviewers. Anyone can vote for the restaurants they like, and then the group’s reviewers take a look at the best.

So far in 2013, around 20,000 people have participated in voting. Blue Ribbon professional critics then visited the top 40 restaurants - of those, 22 received the highest grade of three blue ribbons.

“As regular people tend to incorporate their subject opinions on the overall dining experience - in particular, deducting points when prices are high, even though they liked the food - we decided to have our own value model, to have as many people evaluate the largest number of restaurants and then have experts check those locations,” said Kim Eun-jo, editor-in-chief of Blue Ribbon Survey.

To maintain its objectivity, Blue Ribbon does not accept advertisements from restaurants. In fact, after a brief attempt at non-restaurant advertising last year, the guide once again is advertising-free, relying on physical sales for most of its revenue, as well as some partnerships with major Web portals.

Despite the difficulties in establishing her guide, Kim says it is enjoyable because Korea’s restaurants are definitely getting better each year, serving better quality food and providing better dining experiences.

All of which translates into better sales. Kim says that about 100,000 copies of last year’s guide were sold, double what it used to sell when she started.

“Now I feel more of a sense of duty to describe the best restaurants,” said Kim, adding that it is important to make the market for restaurant reviews bigger.

After several years of struggling, the Blue Ribbon Survey started to see some profit about four years ago, Kim said. It also had its content translated into Japanese for Japanese travel books on Korea since 2009, and is now looking for it to be translated into English in the near future.

Despite Blue Ribbons’ progress, many foodies continue to be biased toward information that comes from overseas sources, such as Zagat.

“Although Blue Ribbon has been out there for a while, there are still only a small number of people aware of it,” said one graduate student at Kyunghee University’s Department of Food Service Management.

“Most food critics still prefer to look at Zagat or other globally renowned brands because the local ones have a relatively short history of reviewing.”

Aggregating ideas

With Korea’s rich history of online communities and the large Web portals that dominate Internet culture here, you would think leading Internet companies would be at the forefront on broadly-based review aggregators. And, indeed, many tried, including Naver, Daum, KT and Hitel (now KTH). But none of them lasted very long.

The most successful, Naver’s Wingspoon, has announced it is shutting down its review services at the end of this year. Many fear that personal bias and the willingness to rig online voting in Korea is just too strong to create a trustworthy system.

On person trying to come up with an alternative is Do Hae-yong, a Ph.D. candidate at Sejong University’s culinary and food service management program, who has come up with a new aggregator called Red Table.

Do takes a “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach to subjectivity. Maybe you can’t come up with a completely objective restaurant review system, but by adding together enough subjective reviews, he hopes to create an alternative that is useful for consumers.

Using a search engine and a carefully devised algorithm, Do combines information about reviewers, how many reviews they have made, what neighborhoods they frequent and how often they write the reviews. It’s all done automatically, and Red Table does not need reviewers to sign up.

“There have been so many review services coming and going, so we thought it was unnecessary for us or for consumers to have yet another outlet,” Do said.

“Before, there were not that many reviews out there, but there are now enough to compile some usable data. It would be a waste not to use those resources.”

Kim Jun-taek, CEO of an online reservation service known as Simple.ly, says that encouraging more people to go online for restaurant reviews will help small and local restaurants garner more diners.

“It is particularly good for the restaurant owners, because when reviews on their place accumulate, they can actually use them to efficiently promote their restaurants to new diners and increase their sales,” Kim said.

“As many local restaurants cannot be found online yet, this is a chance for the market to grow further.”

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]
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