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Can Restaurateurs Buy Their Stars Online?

The Wall Street Journal ran a story on food and restaurant websites this weekend, pegged to the idea that restaurateurs have discovered they can buy the online media. Eater's comp policy is included in the story and does not bear further mention here, but where the story gets interesting is on the subject of sites like Yelp and Chowhound, where moderators have yet to focus in on rampant shilling the way we have:

Sites that rely on consumers to post reviews and rate restaurants are vulnerable to another concern: positive comments written by restaurant employees who don't disclose their affiliation with the restaurant they're writing about. Zagat Survey, for instance, has been criticized for a system that could potentially allow staffers of a restaurant to submit positive reviews. Co-founders Tim and Nina Zagat say methods have been implemented to make sure this doesn't happen. They will not disclose what these methods are, but say they have dropped restaurants from guides when they discover that the owners have asked staff to submit reviews.

To be fair to the community sites, the article takes food bloggers to task as well for what appears to be a general willingness to accept free meals in exchange for editorial consideration. The article cites the case of the Amateur Gourmet and Le Cirque, for example, but, as Lesley Balla on the West Coast notes today, perhaps it's best we don't make this an online vs. offline debate: "The writer seems to imply that only online restaurant reviewers accept free meals, but that simply is not the case. There are plenty of print magazine, newspaper and guidebook writers who get comped meals. Some might use that visit for a critique, other use it to collect information for a story or roundup, but it's common practice. And it's not always for rinky-dink publications with no dining budget."
· The Price of a Four-Star Rating [WSJ]
· Blog Watch: Food & Drink Sites [WSJ]
· Ongoing Debate: Do Freebies Sway the Reviewer? [Eater LA]