Image via CrunchBaseI'm not a fan of the mass review sites like Yelp. If I don't know who's making the recommendation or writing the review, their opinion doesn't mean much to me. Reader reviews with specifics ("park at the 18th St. garage" or "get there before seven or you won't get a table") hold some water, especially when I'm out of town. But for the most part, I don't know if their raves about food will be my raves about food.
There's also a culture among the non-food-obsessed to put a postive shiny spin on every place place they happen to visit. "It was great! Would definitely go back!" As if they feel any negative word is bad karma. They're like the "average user experience" write-ups popular in local newspapers and on local websites. Personally, I want someone with expertise to tell me what they liked and didn't like so I can decide for myself.
Enter Yelp!, a national online site where any user anonymously can quickly and easily look up restaurants and comment on their experiences. Not a bad idea, really, except for the, well, the making money part. Problems first surfaced last year, when the San Francisco Chronicle's Michael Bauer wrote that a few chefs had encountered diners threatening them with bad reviews if meals and drinks weren't comped. As he notes:
Most restaurants have come to accept and understand the rules that guide professional critics, but they haven't come to terms with the palates of hundreds of customer/reviewers who have the power to write negative comments on a whim.Of course, Yelp posts a review policy telling its users that it's not kosher to demand free anything. Legitimate reviewers (and even most bloggers) know the rules. But the extortion that one chef reports in Bauer's post -- comp us or else! -- is truly frightening. At least one chef commented that they tell these users to go on and write their bad review, casting further suspicion on the entire service.
Now, Michael Atkinson, founder of the social networking site FOH-BOH, reports even worse shenanigans on the part of Yelp! The East Bay Express published an article last week on Yelp's newest sales pitch to chefs and how it was gaining traction. Sales reps from the company are now calling restaurants with bad reviews posted and offering -- for a mere $299 a month -- to remove those bad reviews! As part of their service now, the folks at Yelp make money by cleaning up negative comments! Wow. Just Wow. What little shred of usability just went out the window. Talk about a no-negative review policy. How about we make some money on those?!
Yelp's CEO responds on his own blog to critique the reporter's use of anonymous sources -- but never once denies or addresses the fact that they charge businesses to remove or re-order bad reviews! What bugs me a little is that restaurant owners don't seem worried. They seem more irked by the "negative" tone of Yelp (that it allows negative reviews at all) instead of the fact that the service is extorting money to change content. The whole thing offends me. Expertise matters. Good and bad feedback matters, but transparency matters most. A content company can't censor. Worse, they can't charge customers for it.
I'd love to hear if anyone locally has been approached.