The Great Yelp Debate Continues

Categories: Local Spotlight

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Yelp's big, friendly logo
Whether user-review Web site Yelp, the bane of many small business owners, is a helpful aid to consumers or a disservice to the restaurant industry is still up for debate. What's for certain is that it elicits strong reactions from both sides of that industry.

While supporters believe that the site holds bar and restaurant owners accountable to consumers, thereby improving the quality of food and service in local businesses, there are others who complain that reviewers on the site are typically uninformed patrons who base their opinions on just one visit. There is also the claim that there are customers who don't compartmentalize, leading to negative food critiques influenced by personal, emotional factors that have nothing to do with the quality and execution of the meal itself. There are even those who accuse the site of buying positive reviews for its advertisers, but that's another issue altogether, and one that has little evidence to support it.

Many local retailers aren't shy about their opinions on the popular consumer site, some even taking to social media to openly bash Yelp, posting phony reviews to mock their impression of a "typical Yelp user" for comedic effect. But for those who run the risk of tarnished professional reputations, or those facing real financial consequences due to "unfair" reviews, the issue is no laughing matter.

"Some guy once posted a review about me being 'rude' to him- It's true: I was rude to him," Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bar & Spirit Lodge owner Justin Burrow says. "He reached across the bar, grabbed a piece of fruit out of the bowl I use to garnish drinks, and I gave him the 'don't do that look' and he quickly put the fruit back [before] I threw the whole bowl of fruit into the garbage."

Part of Burrow's issue with Yelp is that there is no way to hold customers accountable for their own involvement in bad dining experiences. He claims that many tend to broadcast personal dissatisfaction with the staff rather than providing objective, informed critiques. (Although his bar's current Yelp rating is a respectable, above-average four stars with thirty-nine reviews.)

"People always try to make themselves seem blameless in a public forum, but if folks would take more personal responsibility there would be little to criticize about review sites like Yelp," Burrow says. "But as it stands, it's often little more than a sassy bitch-fest."

While many anti-Yelp voices are service industry players who are directly affected by the reviews, there are also some advocates within the food scene who confess that they frequent the site. Local bar consultant Chris Frankel has used Yelp throughout his food travels across the country-- which he documents on Facebook and Twitter-- to find lesser-known local fare without the public relations pitch. Although he admits that he wouldn't rely on the site for his own gastronomic edification, he sees it as a good reference tool when planning his tasting adventures.

"Just being able to know that these places exist is a valuable asset for food and restaurant research," Frankel says. "The sheer volume of write-ups on Yelp does mean you have to spend a lot of time separating the wheat from the chaff, [but] you can focus on objective items reviewers post- like food pictures and menus-instead of spending too much time parsing the editorial content."

The Yelp discussion has even attracted outspoken celebrity food writers, critics and television personalities such as Andrew Zimmern:

Here's something that really pisses me off: Yelp. I was against Yelp for a long time. I don't like the idea of Yelp. The problem for me is that crowd sourcing is very beneficial except when it comes to things like restaurant criticism and restaurant reviews and restaurant recommenders.

Just the same way I don't ask my five-year-old to tell me whether or not I should go see the movie This Is Forty or Sessions or The French Lieutenant's Woman, I don't ask my son which John Updike book is his favorite -- because he'll just point at any old random one. And while he might get lucky, and certainly most John Updike books are really good, Yelp essentially gives a tremendous forum for a bunch of uninformed morons to take down restaurants.


Such scathing critiques have inspired some to monetize the growing discussion. A new guide from food critic Hanna Raskin teaches consumers how to properly review an establishment on Yelp. Her 79-page ebook, Yelp Help: How To Write Great Online Restaurant Reviews, advises readers on writing "reviews which contribute to our collective culinary conversation and enrich your readers' dining adventures." I'm curious to know how receptive she will be to the Amazon reviews on her ebook.

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Andrew Zimmern is not amused, y'all.

Whether you're staunchly pro- or anti-Yelp, it's surely a debate worth following as a food-lover in a city with a quickly evolving culinary scene such as our own.

Duff Beer Distribution/Favorite Brands account representative Joshua Baggett says, "I would always get mad with reviews on Feast that started with 'I'm a vegetarian'; well then, why the f**k are you reviewing a place like Feast or complaining that places like Petrol Station [known for big, hoppy beers] don't have enough light beers on tap?"

Still, when it comes to determining where to eat or drink, Baggett concedes that it's a useful resource. "I use it for to search and see what's around," he divulges with a smirk.

Where do you stand on the debate, as a consumer or local small-business owner?

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30 comments
fondantcleaver
fondantcleaver

If anyone has time to read bad writing and poorly-informed opinion, and sort through all the crap and filter out all the penalties Yelp places on non-advertisers, well you folks get the meal you deserve and can post about in Yelp. The virtuous, moronic circle continues.

brentjatko121863
brentjatko121863

Yelp reviews are tedious to read.......that should be the obvious problem with the site and the people who contribute to it. 

brentjatko121863
brentjatko121863

My wife told me to ignore it. Against her advice, I went to Yelp and she was right.......again. 

smkyle
smkyle

Cool article- especially for a city like Houston which has so many wonderful restaurant options. 

It sounds like the people quoted in this article think that Yelp users blindly believe every review and take it for face value. It's like reading Rotten Tomatoes or Amazon reviews- you can generally tell who has a legitimate complaint or concern versus people who are just assholes with a can-do-no-wrong attitude. 

But, in general, if you're a good restaurant, you make good food, and you give people the attention they deserve as customers, then the good reviews will follow. 

_takeshi_
_takeshi_

Like any other tool, one has to know how to use Yelp and it's no different than any other crowdsourced review.  One can't just take a single review at face value.  Like anything else on the internet, consider the source.  Figure out if the reviewer's priorities and preferences are in line with your own.  Look for trends.  A trend of complaints is probably not just one person's random emotional retaliation.  If your focus is on food (or any other aspect or combinations of things) then use that to filter information from the reviews.  There are a lot of excellent restaurants in Houston alone that aren't known for ambiance or service, for example.

Searching and validating sources should be basic skills in everyone's toolsets these days.

bradmoore713
bradmoore713

yelp exists. one can use it, ignore it, or be victimized by it. as a business owner, i occasionally use it to adapt to some criticisms. mostly i use it when i travel because there is a 'dive bar' search. yelp is my bitch. is that how you spell 'occasionally'?

dustin.kalman
dustin.kalman

Jon Taffer on Bar Rescue is always using yelp reviews before he goes into a place. Of course, the bad reviews he reads tend to fit for the places he is rescuing. I would be curious what he thinks in this debate.

Mark Markovich
Mark Markovich

I, too, find Yelp to be a very useful tool. As said by others, read the individual reviews , and use the rating as a guide for making relative comparisons.

reform_yelp
reform_yelp

While it may be hard to prove, there are countless business owners who see their positive reviews start dropping off after declining to advertise. Could some be coincidence? Sure, but the fact that Yelp is so secretive about their filter, and employs a double standard; not allowing business owners to ask their clients for reviews while Yelp encourages the "elites" to write countless reviews to maintain their status (and pump up their numbers for investors). I would argue that these self considered "elite" wannabe critics cannot possibly represent the "average" experience that yelps claims it is trying to represent. Yelp is a flawed business model and  it hurts a lot of small businesses with it's arrogant and unresponsive attitude. I'm all for a review process, but they should revamp the filter so real reviews stay visible regardless of whether they are by regular yelpers, and then like gossamersixteen said, let people read the entire story and make up their own mind.

gossamersixteen
gossamersixteen topcommenter

Easy problem, sort it by ratings. Read the good ones, and read the bad ones, the truth is somewhere in between.

timblack2
timblack2 topcommenter

I tend to use it when we travel, similarly to Frankel. Or I just text Frankel and ask him where to eat (ha!) or check his FB thread.

Your best bet, though, is just to ignore the gushing 5 star reviews, as they are just as likely an employee or the chef's mom as they are someone who genuinely had a great experience. And also ignore the one one-stars,as they are often idiots (vegetarian at Feast types).

I have always found the best info in the 3 and 4 star reviews, when they tell you "try this, skip that, etc" The 3 star makes sense in that context. It had highs and lows and here they are. 3 outta 5.

Albert Nurick
Albert Nurick

Better than nothing (I use it a lot when figuring out where to dine in a rural area) but there are far more useful resources in big cities. The crowdsourced nature of the reviews tends to result in a love for places slightly to the right of center of the bell curve.

HTownChowDown
HTownChowDown

When I'm in a rural area and I don't have access to a reviewer I trust, Yelp can be a good starting point to find a worthwhile meal, and often more helpfully, to know which places to avoid.

But as a way to determine where to dine in a big metro area, I think Yelp isn't terribly useful. As with "readers choice" awards, Yelp tends to love places slightly to the right of the center of the bell curve.

The best way to use Yelp in a big city is to get to know some of the reviewers by their reputation, and find folks whose tastes are similar to yours. Their opinions can be far more valuable than a random composite star rating.

Disclaimer: I've been a Yelp elite in the past. I still post some of my reviews to Yelp.

Douglas Marquez
Douglas Marquez

unless you have some better un-bias, un-"mob" like options, fuck yeah i'll use it!

MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

Good article, Ms. Guillen. I think the answer is in the comments to this article. I agree with everything I've read so far. When weighing a new restaurant, my first stop is reviews on OpenTable--usually more mature in tone and content--and then Yelp. On restaurants like Acodoro the reviews lined up identically and I won't drop dime or time in the joint.

As for Mr. Zimmern, his job is reviewing/writing about restaurants. Good experience? He gets paid. Bad experience? He gets paid. Things are a little different for the rest of us.

I only bet on sure things and cinches. For a rare night out with the Mrs. I want a sure thing. I want to know the wait staff are attentive or at least somewhere in the building. I want to know the kitchen consistently gets hot plates out hot and cold plates out cold. When problems arise--as they do--I want to know management rectifies those problems professionally. I want to know if the signature dish is worth the $$$ or tastes like Ken-L Rations.    

Susan Joachim Hurta
Susan Joachim Hurta

As a consumer, I love Yelp- I even used it when I went to London this past spring- it helped me locate restaurants that were close to me, and gave me great descriptions.

Jeff Berlat
Jeff Berlat

there will always be the people that exaggerate, put in false reviews. You take most with a grain of salt and if there are more than 100 reviews, just take an average. Everyone will have bad service or bad food at some point.

carriebwc
carriebwc

I don't use it much for the actual reviews--because I don't trust them. I'm more of a "I am in an unfamiliar place and don't know where they serve breakfast" kind of user--I recently found a Mexican place in Galveston that I didn't know about that way.  I think it is pretty easy to tell when a reviewer should not be paid attention to.

Robi Simone
Robi Simone

I use it to get an overall view of the place but I take the reviews with a grain of salt. I especially look at the customer photos of food to see how it actually looks. One of my favorite restaurants has some pretty horrible reviews written about the wait/service/staff but I've been several times (and keep going back) and I've never had any of those experiences. Of course if I see multiple reviews talking about how they got sick after eating at a restaurant, I'm probably not going to try it.

Chris Watkins
Chris Watkins

I think it's mostly a wonderful place to see the Dunning-Kruger effect in action and catch up on the antics of solipsistic Millennials. :)

D.Guillen
D.Guillen

@bradmoore713 Oh I know all about your bars, Mr. Moore. I use Yelp in the same capacity.  Thanks for reading! 

(And yes, you spelled "occasionally" correctly, ha.)

D.Guillen
D.Guillen

@dustin.kalman You know, I've recently become addicted to this show and noticed that myself! I'd be curious to know, too! 

_takeshi_
_takeshi_

@timblack2 The problem with relying on "try this, skip that" is that it's highly subjective.  One person's "try" -- especially with crowsourced reviews -- is another's "skip".  I recommend evaluating each review on its own merits rather than arbitrary filtering.

A review that includes the "why" is more useful as a rule as it allows the reader to determine the relevance of the review to the reader versus a review that just says "this is good, this isn't" with no additional details.

D.Guillen
D.Guillen

@MadMac Good points. By "sure things and cinches" I'm assuming you do value the subjective reviews. 

Thanks for reading! 

MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

Uh, yeah...what he said.

timblack2
timblack2 topcommenter

@_takeshi_ @timblack2 well obviously one person's review is subjective. all reviews are just opinions, therefore subjective. it's a good starting point, though. a good reviewer will tell you the why and those are the ones I pay the most heed to.

MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

Bingo! I respect and rely on professional critics. But often critics miss, gloss over, or simply aren't current. I read a great review of Bistro Alex Last year. On Yelp, I found it's now "The Bistro," and Alex Brennan is no longer associated. Additionally, Yelp and Tripvisor, (OpenTable only allows you to rate restaurants you can book through them) often illustrate "themes" in restaurants. 

While researching The French Laundry, I found the following themes among the gushing and groaning: 1) you either show up for lunch and roll the dice you'll get in or you're paying a concierge service--upto $200 for reservations--to then pay $200/per plate without booze; 2) diner is four hours long and the dining room is hot as my first car; 3) the kitchen/management doesn't give RJS for problems with your plate/service.

We skipped this joint in favor of Fleur De Lys. Not only was the food phenominal, I didn't have to sell a kidney, suffer heat stroke, or take an additional week of vacation time.  

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