Urbanspoon LogoLaunched by three partners in the USA in 2006, Urbanspoon provided an online forum for peer-reviewing of restaurants. The service expanded to Australia in 2008 and is still the leading referral site for the industry. Urbanspoon and its competitors put restaurant rating in the hands of customers, rather than professional reviewers.

In 2013, a US survey of the use of review sites for local businesses found that restaurant sites are used the most. Sixty-seven per cent of consumers had searched for restaurants, up from 57% the previous year. Along with the rise of the food blogger this has changed the way we choose a restaurant.

Urbanspoon wasn’t the first online restaurant guide. The OpenTable website launched in San Francisco in 1999 and incorporated a booking service.  It has since expanded to include Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico and the United Kingdom. However, restaurants pay to be listed on this site – Urbanspoon and others like it are free.

TripAdvisor, which also incorporates restaurant reviews, was founded in 2000, initially focussing on hotels. In the same year, Toptable (now part of OpenTable) launched in the UK. In Australia, Citysearch was one of the first websites to provide restaurant reviews.

Initially, Urbanspoon was a website. Then, in 2008, the service enhanced its popularity with what quickly became one of the year’s most-downloaded iPhone apps. There were 2.2 million downloads in the five months after launch. The app now runs on iOS, Android and Windows phones. It allows users to search by price range, location, cuisine type and features (such as gluten-free friendly or live music). It also includes critics’ and bloggers’ reviews and lists of the most popular restaurants in your city.

Urbanspoon was acquired by IAC in 2009. The three founders have all departed and in January 2015 the company again changed hands. The new purchaser, Zomato,  was founded in New Delhi in 2008 and expanded to provide 330,000 restaurant listings in countries including Canada, Brazil, and Ireland.

In Australia, Urbanspoon’s major competitors are Dimmi, Eatability, Yelp, TripAdvisor and Good Food (formerly the Australian Good Food Guide). Research by Marketing4Restaurants in 2012 looked at the traffic restaurants’ own websites received from each of these sources. Urbanspoon generated more than three and a half times as many referrals as the next most popular.

The sites aren’t mutually exclusive, though. Urbanspoon offers a booking service through Dimmi, a restaurant booking service founded in Sydney in 2009. Dimmi (Italian for “tell me”) also has partnerships with TripAdvisor, Google and even Qantas.

Managing their online reputations has become a significant issue for restaurants.There have been instances of unscrupulous competitors writing damaging reviews, while a diner who arrives on an “off night” can post scathing comments online. According to Crikey  about 10% of Restaurant and Catering Australia members have made complaints about online review platforms because it’s unclear whether the comments posted are legitimate and who the author is. There are even instances of blackmail – people threatening to write a negative review unless they’re give a discount or a free meal.

Conversely, “astroturfing” (getting your friends and relatives to post glowing comments or paying people for favourable reviews) can provide a distorted picture. TripAdvisor puts a large red penalty notice on the listing page of businesses with suspicious reviews. Yelp posts a warning message for 90 days, saying: “We caught someone red-handed trying to buy reviews for this business.” The ACCC is considering investigating this practice.