Yelp's New Low in Restaurant Reviewing

Feb 242010
 

holdup12

Despite hand-wringing about the decline of print restaurant reviewing, few people seem to care. When I teach food writing, hardly anyone asks about becoming a critic now, and a post I wrote on how the net influences restaurant reviewing elicited no response.

Maybe it’s about the economy. Food bloggers cook, perhaps because it’s less expensive and more hands-on than eating out. Due to lack of funds, restaurant reviewers now fall into two camps:  the few remaining newspaper employees and freelancers reimbursed for meals; and hobbyists, who write on websites like Yelp.

So please correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems no one wants to be a restaurant reviewer anymore. And certainly this news about Yelp doesn’t elevate the profession.

What news, you ask? It’s called Yelpmail. On this post from Chez Geek, a restaurateur explains how Yelp salespeople ask for money to ratchet up the restaurant’s ratings. In another tactic, Yelp’s Elite reviewers came in and wrote a favorable review in exchange for a monthly fee.

Chez Geek is not alone in outing Yelp. The East Bay Express nailed Yelp in an expose. Now there’s a class action lawsuit against Yelp for “running an extortion scheme.”

I wonder why newspapers never thought of that? Oh yeah. Because once the review is printed, it can’t be altered (and because blackmail is illegal, BTW). But on the Internet, Yelp can tinker with ratings forever, and move negative reviews lower so readers have to scroll longer to find them.

I suppose print reviewers will gloat. For them, the news about Yelp is just another indication that hobbyist sites can’t be trusted. But other citizen reviewer sites like Chowhound, Citysearch, and Eater will fill the gap. Let’s hope they don’t abuse their power as their sites rise in popularity, just as print reviewers learn that traditional reviews are becoming scarce, and no one seems concerned.

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  36 Responses to “Yelp's New Low in Restaurant Reviewing”

  1. Nice Dianne! It’s frustrating to know that our votes are being manipulated, but not surprising. I always sort by date so that I see everything that’s been written recently.

    • Hey Jane! I never thought of that strategy. I’ll try it next time. Although I’m a little nervous about Yelp recommendations now.

  2. Chowhound is the oldest “review” site. It predates the discovery of fire. To assume Chowhound is any more objective than Yelp is naive as it, too, is chock full of hobbyist, albeit older, with more disposable income, and less grammatical errors. Amateur “restaurant bloggers” live in the ideal space between yelp/CH & print, and should be clearly separated from “food” bloggers. We will continue to blog about food at our own expense, and many of us would rather eat away houses than dish up yet another lousy pesto recipe.

    Final note: it’s about time unscrupulous Yelp gets sued.

    -“elite” Yelper who just left a Yelp Party.

    • You are an Elite Yelper? Wow. Would love to know more about how that worked.

      Interesting to read how Chowhound reviewers are different than Yelp ones.

      Re bloggers who cover restaurants, many do not blog at their own expense. Print reviewers have a problem with that. But then, their meals are reimbursed.

  3. I know of many business owners here in Oakland who complained of Yelp trying to extort money from them. I canceled my account and emailed the CEO, who denied everything. Then customer support sent me these links so that I could hear “their side of the story”:

    http://officialblog.yelp.com/2009/02/kathleen-richards-east-bay-express.html
    http://officialblog.yelp.com/2009/02/east-bay-express-story-starts-to-unravel.html

    I refuse to use Yelp after talking to all of the people who’ve had to deal with this BS. How low do you have to be to extort money from small businesses, who are already struggling?

    • Yes, i don’t think I’ll use Yelp anymore either. Thanks for providing these links, Stephanie.

  4. The Web, and then Web 2.0 lowered the barriers for people to get their ideas and opinions out. on Yelp That also made it easier for the sleazeballs of the world to come in and play havoc with the ratings and reviews, thus lowering the overall site’s usefulness and trustworthiness. You could say that this makes Yelp (and others of its ilk) victims of their own success.

    • I certainly hope the other sites like Yelp don’t fall victim to this type of business ethic. We need to have them around!

  5. I am a member of that dying breed- the paid restaurant reviewer with an expense budget, albeit a shrinking one (cut by half last year…along with my word count.) And I’ve long felt that hobbyists are a problem- because there is no accountablity, and readers don’t differentiate between the pros- who adhere to a clear set of ethics and guidelines- and everybody else.

    This has also become a huge issue for chefs and restaurant owners. I’m working on a story for a national trade publication about the impact of citizen reviewers and to how to handle them. Have been collecting info for a year and the evidence is clear- extortion- outright and subtle- is endemic, along with inaccuracy (negative comments about food not even on the menu); grudging writing (going after a chef because you have a personal beef); and just plain craziness. In and of itself this may not seem that important, but anytime truth and integrity is at stake, everyone should be concerned.

    • Hello dying breed! ;-) Nice to hear from you.

      Okay, so the extortion stuff is out on the table now, at least for one company. I guess the question is whether the public can figure out the inaccuracies, grudges and craziness (that’s easy) when they look at citizen reviews. I think they can, especially because these days, people look at multiple sites to make a decision, and at this point legitimate reviews still exist online, at least for the big places. For the neighborhood places and ethic restaurants, much parsing is required.

  6. As a food blogger and cookbook author, I simply love food – home cooked or restaurant. In fact, we eat out at least twice a week. But since I write for a global audience and the restaurants are local, I get little interest in local restaurant reviews. Also, since I live in a small area, I doubt I would want to get in the critic business. I am too honest, and it would be too easy to make fast enemies if I didn’t like a restaurant. My options would quickly dwindle! But, if I lived in a place like San Francisco or New York, then I would love to consider becoming a critic as a career – and I do read those newspaper critic reviews!

    I should note that we keep a recommended dining section on my main site (which is for special diets – dairy-free) and I get comments from people all the time on how helpful it is and how they have used it. It isn’t full on reviews, but more like mini-recommendations. It seems to be what people are looking for.

    Thanks for the heads up on yelp, I had no idea.

    • Makes sense that you have little interest in local reviews when your site is national. And yes, you’d have to be willing to make enemies if you wanted to be a real reviewer. That’s what it takes. Perhaps that’s why so many bloggers resort to recommendations instead.

  7. I think it’s wrong to say no-one is interested in becoming a restaurant reviewer; I certainly am, but the way forward to that goal is fairly obscure, which is why I study food academically, instead.

    • Well, good to hear, Jake. Yes, the path forward is not as clear-cut as it used to be. If you’re looking for info on how to get your foot in the door, Will Write for Food has a 9,000 word chapter on restaurant reviewing. Sorry for the blatant self-promotion, but at least it’s an inexpensive investment.

  8. Yes! When I had my take-out in Columbia City I would get calls from Yelp representatives. They wanted me to sign on and they encouraged me to respond to the positive and negative “reviews”. I would argue that I did not have time to do that, that I was busy running a business. I told them at the top of my voice that my most important consideration was the quality and the SAFETY of my food. i felt that I would be fractured and distracted if i responded to every person who took a pot-shot at me. And for this I was to pay THEM money?

    It just seemed like anyone who got up on the wrong side of the bed that day could go to my restaurant and ****-can it.

    Thank you for writing about this!

    • Hey, that’s what citizen journalism is all about. And somehow readers are supposed to read between the lines and figure out whether to go to your restaurant. Glad you’re not doing that anymore!

  9. One of my true joys in life is eating out. Turning it into a anaytical exercize would take the joy out. It’s one thing to complain or extol to the person across the table and another thinking about what I might write the meal.

    • Yes, when I became a restaurant reviewer it was quite an adjustment. It was work — quite a lot of work. It takes a certain type to enjoy it.

  10. I was solicited by Yelp to buy advertising on their site for my portrait business. When I declined (I thought their cheapest package at $300/mo was a bit steep), I suddenly found that all but a couple of my customer reviews were gone! Interesting!

    As far as why traditional reviews are becoming scarce. My personal experience is that the restaurants reviewed in the paper (I read the Los Angeles Times) are most often out of my reach, meaning too expensive. I’d rather know what people think about a place I might actually go–the Thai place down the street or the new sandwich shop. Places S. Irene Virbila would never step foot into! :) And I always take the Yelp reviews with a grain of salt, of course.

    • Yes! I wrote up a review for my hairdresser on Yelp, and it disappeared after a few months. We couldn’t figure out what happened to it. Turns out the salon owner hadn’t paid up.

      Agreed that a dichotomy exists now. Before, people only went out to eat for special occasions, so reviewers helped them figure out which ritzy restaurant to go to with their hard-earned money. Now that people eat out at casual places all the time, the existing model isn’t as relevant.

  11. I don’t have much input on this except to point to Sam of Becks&Posh as an amateur reviewer who does it right — posted code of ethics, multiple visits, always pays her own way, etc.

    I will say I recently was amazed to see one of our doctors given an amazingly bad Yelp review that started out — “Dr. X. is not the doctor I saw, I saw another (unnamed) dr. in the practice” ….. makes you wonder

    • Re Sam Breach, yes, absolutely. A shout out goes to her.

      Re Yelp, I guess citizen reviewers can post anything they want, and then the provider has to deal with the outcome. Sheesh.

  12. Hi Dianne, I can totally sympathize with Lisa’s comment above. To combat that, I only post reviews of restaurants that I love– it makes eating out less tedious and also helps me control of the tone of the blog, which I wanted to be upbeat and approachable.

    I think I am one of the few souls left who want to learn how to become an effective restaurant critic– since that’s the focus of my blog. Can you point me in the direction of some good resources? Much Thanks!

    • Sorry, Gina, I don’t agree that reviews should be all positive. In fact, I wouldn’t consider that a review. I’d consider it promotion. Please read my post on reviewing for background.

      Also as I wrote to Jake, Will Write for Food has a 9,000 word chapter on restaurant reviewing. Sorry for the blatant self-promotion, but at least it’s an inexpensive investment.

  13. At least in the UK, it seems that many (if not most) of the big-name restaurant critics got there by making their way up the traditional newspaper journalism ranks. Which perhaps makes restaurant reviewing feel like more of a closed shop that other areas of food writing?

    Also, I wonder if the idea of freelance restuarant reviewers doesn’t work as well as having a fixed staff writer, because of issues of consistency and style and readers coming to trust their favourite reviewers.

    Do you think it’s any harder/easier to get into restaurant reviewing than other areas of food writing?

    • That’s true here as well. Newspaper reviewers have often come from other areas of the newspaper. It’s more of a closed shop at newspapers if you want a full-time job, but not for freelance reviewers.

      Freelance reviewers may not work as well in those terms, but usually they are a necessary evil because the publication/website can’t afford salaried employees.

      If you can find smaller newspapers and local websites that take reviews or need them, you can still get into restaurant reviewing.

  14. As far as I can tell (and I’ve written about 200 reviews on Yelp and am a former elite), Yelp will give a dose of protection to companies with whom they have a relationship or a company that is a paying sponsor. They will remove negative reviews for businesses that fall under those categories, for reasons that are suspect. They will allow vindictive, nasty, slanderous reviews to remain up for companies or businesses that do not fall under those categories.

    One difference between a site like Yelp and other social networking sites like Facebook or other user review sites like Amazon is that people who are really into Yelp are pretty cultish about it. They will rush to defend Yelp as swiftly as if Yelp were the religion they’ve been part of since birth and their family has been part of for generations.

    The company assigns community managers as a means of getting people excited about being social and essentially getting addicted to the Yelp community via their social events. And the community managers are really, really pushy sometimes. When I was first nominated to be an Elite (I guess someone like my writing enough), the community manager kept after me to join up even though I declined initially multiple times. I finally accepted, but she said I had to put a real photo of myself up. I did and quietly a few weeks later took it down, but within a day another community manager wrote a message (with a condescending twist): “you need to have a photo up, etc, we realize the responsibilities(?) that come with being an Elite aren’t for everyone(??)” and so on and so forth. I decided around that time to ask to be relieved of Yelp elite “duties” (which I guess involve…well, I’m not sure what exactly. Having a massive ego, perhaps?)

    Point is, Yelp is a pretty good site in a lot of ways but it’s utterly ruined by their specious business practices and their really, really off-putting high school manner of how they conduct their social affairs and businesses.

    • So I take it you weren’t paid to be an Elite reviewer. It was all about the prestige and the free meals? Plus, it seems odd to put your photo up, a no-no for traditional reviewers, but then I guess being anonymous wasn’t important to Yelp.

      Agreed that the site is pretty good in many ways, but they’ve ruined it now. I wouldn’t call it a high-school manner. More like the mafia, where you have to pay protection money to keep your business in good standing.

  15. Yelp is new to me. NEVER heard of it. But I am a mom of four and alot goes by me in the world these days. I do write reviews on my blog of restaurants I love. All for the love it, never for money or recognigition. (so far!) I STILL read my local papers reviews, many times I disagree, but I read….The only time I use Chowhound or any of these websites to find a restaurant is if I am on vacation and skeptical of the recommendations I am getting from the conceirge or hotel book. But them I still feel the best place to find a restaurant is on the street. JUST ASK around people. And then judge for youself and then if you are me write a blurb about it on your website and hope some one tries it too. I am all about local, local local. And one, more thing it is true if I go on “these” sites I usually try to scan to the bottom of the bowl to see what some of the farther down reviewers have said. So that’s my two cents….

    • Hey Sheila, interesting approach, to just walk down the street or ask people. A lot of restaurant reviewers do that.

      Yes, good to have some skepticism when it comes to these sites. We’ll all have to have lots now when we read Yelp.

  16. Wow! This is outrageous. I wonder if Yelp will recover from all the bad press?

    • Yeah, all this bad press has got to affect their ability to bring in advertising, I would imagine. Will it be enough to get them to change their ways — that’s the real question.

  17. I’ve never liked Yelp and I don’t use it. The news about the lawsuit was even more disturbing. However, I do read Chowhound and I find that it’s easy to pick out who knows what they’re talking about so it’s easy to follow them and their opinions. I don’t know why these should replace reviews, however. The way I see it, Chowhound is a discussion board. Yes, people make recommendations and talk of their experiences at certain places but I never really see the postings there as official reviews. I still read my local paper’s restaurant reviews even if I have already visited the restaurant before it is reviewed.

    On the subject of blogs, I sometimes write about restaurants I visit and tell about my experience. I don’t portray myself as a critic because I’m not and that’s not the area of food writing I would like to get into. I think my readers know that and my hope is that they’ll see my restaurant write-ups as if I were their friend telling them about a place I just tried. Unfortunately, It seems like all bloggers who write about restaurants in any fashion are always placed into the same category with those who take or demand freebies. I have paid for the majority of my meals; I never announce myself and I don’t request special favors. On maybe two or three occasions in my three years of blogging I’ve been to pre-opening media dinners and if I have written about them, I specify that they were.

    • Okay, good distinction to say that Chowhound is a discussion board, not a reviews site. Agreed.

      Re restaurants you visit, I’m impressed that you pay for them yourself, and don’t think of yourself as an entitled blogger who should be woed by restaurateurs and p.r. people. That is certainly a stereotype, but I’m afraid people like that exist.

      Re reviews, what I like about them is that they discuss the pros and cons. If you never discuss the cons, your blog reads like a promotional tool to boost restaurant and event attendance. Bloggers are not p.r. people, but sometimes it sure seems that way.

  18. My best friend works at a local eatery in San Francisco that happens to be amazingly good. The place he manages goes through great pains to make sure everything is tip top and super tasty and fresh. Also demanding of good customer service. He manages one of the places of three. He said Yelp has called them many times to advertise and they have declined. Each time they decline their worst reviews appear in greater numbers when you go onto their review site even if they are over a year old. He also said many of their customers have written reviews that have not appeared on Yelp. It would be nice to see many businesses ban together and get a kick ass lawyer to extort from the exorters! Its like a modern day mafia via the internet

    • Wow, that’s quite a story, Mike. Thanks for sharing it.

      In the early days of Yelp I wrote two positive reviews that appeared briefly and then disappeared. Neither of the places I reviewed were advertisers. It makes me wonder.

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