Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Problem with Yelp

Image representing Yelp as depicted in CrunchBaseImage via CrunchBase

I'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.
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dhonig said...

Wow! What an astounding story. Thank you. Do you mind if I pass it along in the wine world?

Angie's List said...

You say you’re not a fan of mass review sites, but I wanted to weigh in with a defense of one of them. I’m with Angie’s List.

We cover more than 425 other services, and we think online ratings can be really useful for both consumer and provider – if they’re offered with a generous helping of accountability.

Just as we don’t allow service providers to bully members into holding back on negative comments, we don’t allow members to bully providers into giving away anything as the price of a good report.

We’ve been in the consumer ratings business for 14 years now, and we’re committed to fairness. We hope those companies that followed us are as committed.

braingirl said...

Actually, I was thinking about this today -- and I'm happy to say I don't even consider Yelp in the Angie's List league. Angie's List (as far as I know) doesn't censor and requires users to be registered, no? And I can't imagine Angie's List trying to sell their business customers on suppressing negative reviews -- in fact, the negative reviews are what make Angie's list credible.

But Angie's List has worked hard to ensure users and reviewers alike know the service is credible. Sadly, so many other "mass reviews" sites like Yelp just gather as much user generated content as possible. Maybe this should really be "Why I hate Web 2.0" :-)

Still Waiting said...

I guess I find this post a bit haughty. I don’t understand why you would think that Joe Diner is so unreliable? No doubt sites like Yelp! promote some bad blood, it’s bound to happen. And just to be clear, I’m certainly not defending the use of a site like Yelp! as a tactic to get discounted food, there is certainly a special place in hell for guests that are out to scam free eats. But I do think there is value to getting the opinion of an average diner if you’re looking for an idea on a place to eat. Not everyone has such a refined palate as you no doubt have (judging by your qualifications), and I’m even going to go out on a limb and guess that seven out of every ten diners in Indianapolis are going to agree with Joe Diner when a meal is acceptable and be less harsh of a critic like you or me. I value what you write, being a bit more restaurant savvy than most, I find most of your writing to be useful and insightful, and your presence in the Indianapolis dining community is certainly appreciated. But to go damning the average person as a buffoon is a bit shocking to me.
“I don't know if their raves about food will be my raves about food.” Which is probably more or less the point…right? To offer a place for presumably likeminded people to offer the pro’s and con’s of a dining establishment. When looking for a new place to dine, I often check MetroMix by or Yelp! just to get an idea or two, find some place I’m not aware of, or just make sure the place has not been drug through the mud by every soul that stepped foot in the door. Because while it may be true the average person is not going to be a Top Chef judge, you can probably take some comfort in knowing you’re going to an establishment that has not been knocked on by every diner to date.
I understand your post to be more of an expose against people that use sites like Yelp! as a meal ticket. And I agree it’s an abomination. But I think the position that people are somehow inherently wrong because they are not as versed as you in the culinary arts is, to a degree, misguided and arrogant to a point.
If you’re looking for the expertise, I think you might just have to be the voice of the culinary experts in town. There aren’t too many. A few professional reviewers aside from you do some very good work, but unfortunately the market is a bit small, so the casual reviewer has a semi-important role.a

indytechcook said...

I don't know if it's my trusting nature or just ignorance, but I like the review services. I enjoy eating (who doesn't) and like to pretend to have a fine pallet, but when it comes down to it I'm just an average Joe Diner and the suggestions help.

I will say that I will approach these sites with a different attitude now that I now more of the background.

This is also one more reason to read the Indiana Restaurant Scene Blog because of this post.

As always, I enjoy your articles.

braingirl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
braingirl said...

Feed Me/Drink Me also has a published review policy as do most reputable food blogs. And, I might add, as does Yelp.

While the reviews aren't great, the real issue for me is their blatant manipulation of content and charging chefs fees for the privilege.

indytechcook said...

Thank you for adding the link to your policies. I have never doubted your ethics but think it would have been a good addition to the article.

I hope you didn't think that I was commenting against your blog. It was more saying that I will not look to the mass service a proper review any longer and turn to sites like yours and Indiana Restaurant Scene. I have always enjoyed reading your articles.

braingirl said...

I don't take much too personally around here :-) We've had the discussion on review policies and blogs years ago -- and I helped Erin with hers at Ind. Restaurant Scene when she started examining best practices.

But does *selling* the deletion of bad reviews not bother anyone else?!

Anonymous said...

It bothers me, but only insofar as it damages the legitimacy of the site. Just like anything else on the internets, you gotta do your homework and not rely on any one source's opinions.

Still Waiting said...

I was trying to make it a point to acknowledge that I completely understand that the point of the post is to rally against manipulation. I also completely agree that such manipulation is wrong to the restaurateurs and chefs, but also a violation of the rights of the posters to say what they feel is true and useful. We are certainly on the same page. Guests who try to get food free or cheap deserve to be marked for life as scammers and never allowed to set foot in another dining establishment again.

J. Silverheels Gray said...

Braingirl asked:

“But does *selling* the deletion of bad reviews not bother anyone else?!”

Yes. That’s one step away from extortion.

(“Nice little restaurant you got here – be a shame if it got some bad reviews....”)

silver said...

I think there has been a loss of actual criticism in all walks of journalism - restaurants, culture, politics - in favor of the opinion of "Joe Diner" (or Joe the Plumber, as the case may be). I don't think sites like Yelp! should be shut down or anything, but I do think it's unfortunate that they're shouting down the experts. And, yes, there are dining experts and, no, not everyone is one.

Erin said...

Re: unjustified bad reviews, I think anyone who has shopped on Amazon or looked at Epinions knows to take any overly glowing or negative reviews with a grain of salt. User reviews are a big part of the web experience nowadays. Most people know to look for general trends, and for this, reviews are great.
This is the same reason I don't read individual movie critics - I go to Rotten Tomatoes and get an aggregate of opinions.

Now, this -
"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!"

Is ABSOLUTELY SHOCKING and needs to be blown up all over the Interwebz. Yelp! is quickly rising to be the go-to review site, with their slick intertwining of social networking/personal profiles. I liked Yelp! til I read this. But this really pisses me off. It's shady, undermines the whole system, basically renders the site worthless to the user and just a big money-generating beast for the creators. I do wonder how prevalent the problem is. Some investigative journalism is in order.