“The Shed at Dulwich”: How a Fake Restaurant Soared to the Top of TripAdvisor (And What it Means for Your Business)

The most interesting soft story in reviews for 2017-2018 is without a doubt the curious case of The Shed at Dulwich. Over the course of seven months, Oobah Butler, a 27-year old freelance writer who works for Vice, managed to transform the shed in the back of his garden into the hottest and most exclusive restaurant in London.
The problem? The restaurant didn’t exist.

To uncover how Butler pulled off his scheme, we’re going to look at TripAdvisor and how gaming the system with fake reviews was the key to creating The Shed at Dulwich hoax.

It All Starts With a Well-Designed Website

Journalists have devoted many words to The Shed at Dulwich. I’ll be offering a bit of a recap of some of these points. It seems that Mr. Butler got the idea for his hoax after he was paid to write fake reviews of restaurants on TripAdvisor for £10 (roughly $14USD a pop).

Butler describes the initial seeds of his hoax being sowed here:

“Restaurant owners would pay me £10 and I'd write a positive review of their place, despite never eating there. Over time, I became obsessed with monitoring the ratings of these businesses. Their fortunes would genuinely turn, and I was the catalyst.”

So how did the hoax begin? Like all reputable businesses do these days, The Shed at Dulwich began with a website. Here’s where I recommend you take a look at some of the articles I’ve linked to, because the stories of those appetizing-looking food photos are hilarious. That tasty dessert is a urinal cake covered in shaving cream and oil. That tender piece of meat with a perfectly cooked egg on it?

That’s Oobah Butler’s foot.

The Shed at Dulwich’s website is pretty decent. It doesn’t provide a lot of information, which isn’t great if you’re trying to run a legitimate business. But it’s perfect for this hoax because it gives just enough to tantalize the viewer but not enough for anyone to be able to investigate.

Of course, when it comes to websites for food-service industry businesses, we can do better. But that’s not all The Shed at Dulwich needed. To complete the hoax, they needed what any small business does to succeed online: reviews.

TripAdvisor Reviews: The Missing Piece

London is one of the world’s most popular cities for tourism, as well as an economic and cultural center in Europe. So it’s no surprise that visitors to London love getting their info on potential places to eat, drink and visit from TripAdvisor.

If you’re not familiar with the directory, think of TripAdvisor as a specialized Yelp. Travelers leave reviews of restaurants, places to stay, as well as other tourist attractions. I’ve used TripAdvisor extensively when I go abroad—it’s an awesome resource.

Butler bought a burner phone and the hoax began in earnest. At the beginning of his efforts, The Shed at Dulwich was ranked No. 18,149 of all the restaurants in London. London’s fakest restaurant was also London’s worst restaurant, for a short period of time.

So how did Butler claim the top spot? He did what he’d been paid to do by restaurant owners trying to game the system and started leaving glowing fake reviews for his fake restaurants. And because he’d left false ratings on TripAdvisor before, he knew the rules that would get his listing investigated or shut down.

I’m not going to reveal what those are, because at LinkNow Media we’re interested in white hat SEO. But know that they exist, so if you’re thinking of leaving fake reviews for your own business, odds are you’ll be found out pretty quickly.

What Makes a Good Review?

Authentic reviews are best because they contain a mixture of positives and negatives. Customer experiences are very rarely all good or all bad, which adds realistic detail to reviews by your actual clients.

I know I’m more inclined to trust a review with some negatives added than one that showers a business in unanimous praise. While you want your business to stand out, superlatives like ‘the absolute best!’ just don’t inspire customer confidence.

And “you shouldn’t fear the negative review” . It’s a unique opportunity to show your humanity and empathy as a brand ambassador for your business, and customers are typically understanding and sympathetic when they see you make genuine efforts to smooth out misunderstandings. After all, no one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes.

Except the fakers like The Shed at Dulwich. What else contributed to The Shed at Dulwich’s top rating? The fact that no one could get in.

False ‘Exclusivity’ and Fake Reviews: The Perfect Storm for TripAdvisor

At first, The Shed at Dulwich didn’t get much attention. Butler and his friends left some fake reviews. But then the real calls started coming. This goes to show that if you use local SEO directories like TripAdvisor and Yelp and have clearly communicated information about your business, people will call you! It’s the basis of what so many online marketing companies do, including ourselves.

But when potential diners called The Shed at Dulwich, they were rebuffed. The restaurant was completely booked, all the time. No matter how rich or how famous the caller was. And the rich and famous did start calling. This drove up demand for bookings at the fake restaurant, causing hype to grow. Which meant that soon The Shed at Dulwich was reaching the top of the TripAdvisor charts.

Everyone knows there’s nothing more desirable than something you can’t have. Which, as a business owner, is a hard strategy to sell if you’re running a legitimate business. What strategy do you use when you don’t own a fake restaurant that never gives out reservations? Try and put forward reasonable needs your potential customer might have by using engaging and well-written custom content.

Apparently, people were even trying to use geolocation tools like Google Maps to find the location of the famous shed, in an attempt to bribe for a reservation in person. We recommend using Google My Business for any business you might be operating, but this is ridiculous!

Six months after the hoax begins, The Shed at Dulwich ranked #1 of the 18,000 restaurants in London.

What’s the Takeaway for my Business?

If there’s anything you should learn from this little entertaining history, it’s this: reviews matter to your business. You can have the best website in the world or be the world’s number-one-most-dedicated provider of customer service, but without reviews, attracting new clients can be tough.

Online reviews are something that “92% of all clients are looking at” when they’re making business decisions. We know that online marketing can be a tough job. After all, we do it every day for our clients, and put in long hours to do so! But this is just one of the many strategies you need to focus on when you’re trying to build a reputation for your business online. And the payoffs are big. Just look at the case of The Shed at Dulwich—within months, the phone wouldn’t stop ringing.

Imagine what legitimate reviews from your satisfied clients can do for your real business! All it takes is a willingness to engage and be vulnerable and clients will respond in kind. That’s not only good for your SEO, it’s good for the health of your company.

The Most Important Review Sources for Your Business

When you’re trying to build a brand online or to strengthen your existing one, reviews are super important. But some are more valuable than others. At LinkNow Media, we perform SEO for our clients for both local and organic searches.

Did you know that search engines use algorithms to assign weight (and therefore credibility) to everything you find on the Internet? It’s called domain authority, and it’s very important to the way the web functions.

If you want to improve your website’s ranking, it’s essential to create citations in business directories. And even better if you can get reviews on those websites too. TripAdvisor is great for hotels and restaurants and is really well-regarded. But for everything else, here are four of the biggest names in domain authority. If you’re going to get reviews anywhere, do it on these sites!

  • Google My Business:
  • Every small business owner knows (or should know) the value of having setting up your business on GMB and claiming and verifying that listing. “Otherwise, your competitors could change everything for you” . Customers rely on Google searches for tracking down business information more than any other source. If you get reviews anywhere, leave it here.

  • Yelp:
  • While there were a few rough years as the company ironed out kinks and tried to make reviews as verifiable as possible, Yelp is better than ever and it’s here to stay. A positive Yelp review from a customer can help you come out on top.

  • Facebook:
  • Everyone’s favorite social media website is a pretty good place to interact with customers in a way that feels transparent and real. Let your guard down and ask your business’s fans to review you on your business page—we bet they’ll take you up on it!

  • Niche directories like Houzz and Angieslist:
  • depending on the industry you work in, these sites can be amazing for generating leads and building a rock-solid reputation. It’s why we include local directory citations for all of our introductory service packages—niche directories are amazing!

Does The Shed at Dulwich’s Success Mean I Should Start Using Fake Reviews?

Absolutely not. At LinkNow Media, we focus on producing the best results for our clients using tried-and-tested white hat SEO tactics. If you don’t know what that means, check out our “glossary” . (We’re always trying to demystify the wild world of SEO for you folks).

The Shed at Dulwich does prove that black hat tactics can work—temporarily. But it’s a high-risk strategy. And the punishments are so severe (including getting your website delisted or scraped or smacked down to the bottom of the rankings) that soliciting or paying for fake reviews isn’t just unethical, it’s downright dangerous to your business.

Once TripAdvisor caught wind of The Shed at Dulwich, its listing was deleted—permanently. This isn’t the end of the world for a fake restaurant. But when real livelihoods are on the line, running afoul of the people whose job it is to keep the Internet honest can be devastating to your employees and your wallet.

There’s simply no reason to use black hat techniques when white hat SEO is just as powerful a tool for getting your website in front of customers. It’s true that it may not be as fast. But it’s the difference between exercising and following a diet at the gym versus taking steroids: one route is faster but the other provides long lasting health and benefits to reputation.

Need Help Dealing With Reviews?

If you’re wondering how to get to the top of your local directory listings, give LinkNow Media a call. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed our account of this hilarious and strange story. And hopefully we can show you that there’s no reason to resort to fraud to see results for your website and your business.
One of the many services we offer to our clients is helping them solicit reviews from their customers—the right way. Which means improving your website’s ranking without putting anything at risk.

When you combine a passion for marketing with a dedication to customer service, you get a total package that can’t be beat. From content to reviews management to Google My Business, LinkNow Media does it all. And we do so month after month.

It’s why we’ve built our client base up to over 9,000 clients from scratch. And every one of those clients is free to leave at any time. That’s how we prove our dedication to good customer service and to doing the most for your business, whatever your business is. Give us a call and let’s build the best real restaurant website in your area today!

Research By Jake Byrne
Written By Jake Byrne

Eve Mendelovitch

Author: Eve Mendelovitch

About Eve Mendelovitch