Like tickets to a Justin Bieber concert, dinner reservations at some restaurants are so desirable that people will go out of their way to insure they get a table. But while many of us just wait until the hype dies down and dine out at eateries where you don’t need a reservation, there is a war waging online to see who can create the better reservation bot to game the system and score seats as they pop up.
A security engineer at Square recently posted his tale of how he came to realize that the reason he couldn’t get a good seat at some hot new San Francisco eatery wasn’t because human beings were furiously clicking away every time a table opened up, but because human beings had created scripts to constantly search for openings and immediately make reservations.
First, he set up his own script to alert him via e-mail whenever the restaurant’s UrbanSpoon reservation page changed. He came to realize that canceled reservations were being posted at 4 a.m. each night, and for a while his system worked. He’d get an e-mail, go online, scoop up a reservation and then eventually enjoy his meal.
But as time went on, he began to notice that things were getting more competitive.
“One day I found myself looking at it and noticed that as soon as reservations became available on the website (at 4am), all the good times were immediately taken and were gone by 4:01am,” he writes. “It quickly became obvious that these were reservation bots at work.”
Even his previously fruitful e-mail alert system was rendered useless, as reservations would be gone by the time he refreshed the UrbanSpoon page.
So does he give up? No. He builds a better reservation trap, which he has also made available to the world via GitHub.
“With this script I was able to start getting reservations again,” he writes, “but I know that this bot war will continue to escalate.”
There are already a number of reservation bots out there, so the engineer tells Ars Technica that releasing his code to the public was about “leveling the playing field… to create a website where non-technical people can use my bot to get reservations of their own. It seems unfair that only technical people get to dine at the ‘hip’ restaurants in San Francisco.”
Meanwhile, Eater points out that bot battles have been heating up over reservations in other cities like Chicago and New York, with some scalpers getting in on the game by scooping up and reselling reservations just like those Justin Bieber tickets we mentioned at the top of the story.
In spite of the engineer’s claims — which are backed up by anecdotal evidence from others — that savvy foodies are using bots to manipulate UrbanSpoon’s reservation system, the website says it just isn’t so.
“While we will not disclose data about specific customers, we currently have processes in place to prevent duplicate reservations and combat reservation fraud,” said the website in a statement. “Urbanspoon’s goal is to give real diners the opportunity to make reservations. We’ve noticed that many diners will stop at nothing to get a table at the hottest restaurants in town… so we are constantly working on improving the overall reservations process to give all diners an opportunity to secure a table.”