With a beachfront location and the promise of live music, Saphia Smereka had been excited about the impending launch of her new restaurant in Byron Bay last Saturday.

But the good vibes turned bad when Kiki on Byron received its first review on Google last Thursday night — two days before it was set to open.

“The opening was a reflection of the way in a which a poorly constructed business should run.”

Ms Smereka is so upset about the fake review, which cited an “opening” which never took place, that she has postponed her planned public launch.

Screenshot of negative reviews on Google.
The initial negative review Saphia Smereka’s business received on Google before it had even opened.(Supplied: Kiki on Byron)

Impact can be ‘devastating’

Ms Smereka, who said she hoped to open Kiki on Byron in the coming weeks, said the review was clearly meant as an attack.

“It was very upsetting to get this negative review, but heartbreaking considering we aren’t even open yet — it was a clear attack,” she said.

The stress of opening a restaurant suddenly brought a whole new level of anxiety.

“Especially being the first review, it’s definitely left me very anxious.”

But worse was to come. Three more bad reviews were added over the weekend despite the business still not having opened its doors to the public.

“Jackie Peterson”, “Samantha Blue” and “Kylie Heart” all posted negative reviews on Saturday, January 9, and gave Ms Smereka’s restaurant one-star ratings.

Screenshot of negative reviews on Google. One says 'Disappointed'. Another says 'not worth my time'.
Fake reviews posted about Ms Smereka’s yet-to-be-opened restaurant.(Supplied: Kiki on Byron)

The ABC checked these “reviewers” and found none of them had online profiles, or had posted any prior reviews — which implies they are either robots or people using aliases who are trying to sabotage Ms Smereka’s business.

“Someone told me that Google reviews are permanent and there’s no way you can get them deleted, so they can actually be devastating for a lot of small businesses,” Ms Smereka said.

Screenshot of a Google search suggesting a number of auto-filled search terms starting with 'fake reviews on google'.
Google says it knows a small number of bad actors try to game the platform by adding fake business listings and reviews. (Supplied)

When she reported the situation to Google Australia, the company issued a statement encouraging Ms Smereka to report the reviews, and saying it would look into the matter.

The statement said Google took the issue seriously and closely monitored content that violated its policies. It said it provided easy ways for users to flag reviews, inappropriate content and misleading locations for removal.

New South Wales Small Business Commissioner Chris Lamont also said his office could make representations on behalf of a business to social media platforms.

Google also said that while the vast majority of reviews on Google were helpful, relevant and authentic, it was aware there were a small number of bad actors trying to game the platform by adding fake business listings and reviews.

“It’s good to know that the small business commissioner will represent me if nothing happens,” Ms Smereka said.

Facebook wars

The effect of an online smear campaign can be personally and commercially devastating, as sustainable farmer David McGiveron found out.

Mr McGiveron and his wife run an online meat delivery service from Casino, in the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales, promising a paddock-to-plate approach with a range of different meat from sustainable and ethical sources.

But he and his young family have been subjected to abuse from a variety of groups.

Image of two farmers standing at the top of a hill looking out at rolling green hills and pastures.
David McGiveron’s online meat delivery company, Our Cow, has been the target of trolling.(Supplied: Our Cow)

Mr McGiveron’s main source of marketing, social media, was automatically shut down because, he believes, of the abusive language used by critics, including words such as “murderers” and “rapists”.

“[Our] Facebook and Instagram [accounts] were shut down for three days and we weren’t able to conduct business,” he said.

Racists, animal activists take aim

Mr McGiveron said his business had been targeted by animal activists simply because it produced meat, and that the online abuse was relentless, exhausting and difficult to live with.

“We have contacted Facebook because we want an explanation about how somebody, because of their beliefs, can completely disrupt your business,” Mr McGiveron said.

He said Facebook had not given him an explanation.

As well as being targeted by anti-meat activists, Mr McGiveron said his business also had been singled out by racists.

“They say because our meat is halal-certified that we support Islamic terrorism, which is absolutely absurd,” Mr McGiveron said.

“We are trying to change the way meat is produced and provide transparency in farming for good.”

How to deal with online trolls

Mr Lamont recommended small business owners should keep a calm head when dealing with negative people online.

“What we recommend is, take the time to respond to the review, use the platform, whether it is Google reviews or Facebook or online or social media, to respond to the review in a really professional way,” he said.

Mr Lamont said a rational approach could help to highlight how irrational the complainant was.

“What that does is 1) corrects the record, [and] 2) sometimes turns a negative into a positive by showing just how committed a business is to providing quality customer service and taking feedback and reviews very seriously,” Mr Lamont said.

“As tedious as it sounds, it is important for businesses to check your online profile, comments and reviews every single day, if not more.

“When you respond, try to not make it personal, as difficult as that can be, because people read what you say.

“Both good and bad reviews are read and by getting to the heart of the issue it provides customers an insight as to how professional your business is.

“It could be someone in the community who is disaffected or it might be a competitor.

A retro-style sign featuring a palm tree says 'Kiki on Byron: serving good vibes'.
The Byron Bay business is still promising “good vibes” despite the bad vibes it has received through fake reviews.(Supplied: Kiki on Byron)

Real reviews welcome

In Byron Bay, Ms Smereka continued to prepare for her restaurant’s opening.

“I think what the commissioner said is a good idea, just responding in a polite and professional way saying, ‘Are you confused because we haven’t opened?’,” she said.

“I’m just learning to deal with any situation in a positive way.”

In the meantime, Ms Smereka said she was looking forward to some positive and real reviews in the future.