Jennie Chen of the food blog MisoHungry and Austin American Statesman writer Addie Broyles moderated one of the liveliest panels I attended at SXSW. Whether you are a local restaurant owner or one of the tuned-in social media superstars who uses sites like Yelp and Chowhound to review restaurants, you would probably have had something to say at “The Yelp Effect: When Everyone’s a Restaurant Critic.”
Apparently this is an issue near and dear to many hearts, as the panel’s small room was packed to the gills with interested people. I was lucky to get a seat for the panel, which was structured as an open discussion or “core conversation,” rather than a top down speech. It was already getting social media-y in here!
The People Yelp
The biggest take away from the panel was the fact that restaurants can no longer get away with subpar service. If a Yelper (or someone who writes on CitySearch, Chowhound, UrbanSpoon or one of the many other everyone’s-a-critic-sites) has a bad experience at a restaurant, pretty soon everybody who’s tuned into social media will know. If enough Yelpers have a bad experience, that restaurant’s credibility will take a nosedive.
On the restaurants’ side, people argued about the trustworthiness of reviews posted on sites like Yelp. The argument there seemed to be that maybe the public just doesn’t “get” some restaurants. Maybe it was because we were at a technology convention, but that argument never got off the ground. In my opinion, if the public doesn’t get you, maybe the problem is with… well, you.
Yelp.com itself answers a few of these complaints. First, the site uses an algorithm to police reviews that look suspicious. For example, if a spate of people suddenly create Yelp.com accounts and give 5 star reviews to one restaurant only to never log on again, the site recognizes a smoke blowing campaign and suppresses or even deletes the too-glowing reviews. The same goes for a user who is only negative all of the time. The site decides he’s probably just a crank. Further, business owners do have the chance to publicly comment on reviews and to contact reviewers who have had a bad experience.
The main idea of the panel seemed to be that, instead of trying to sue or similarly squelch sites like Yelp.com, that restaurant owners should get with the program and start seeing Yelp as a customer service platform and a mandate on how to improve.
This Blogger Responds
My one gripe about the panel was that we didn’t have time to talk about a couple of sensitive issues when it comes to Yelp.com. One is the assertion by many small business owners that Yelp allows people to pick on the small, local businesses than can least afford bad reviews in this economy. (To this, as a Yelper, I say “Offer a good product, and good reviews will follow.”) The other issue I wanted to touch on was the two class action lawsuits filed against Yelp alleging that they try to shake local businesses down for advertising, and if the businesses don’t comply, Yelp.com hides their positive reviews and otherwise damages their credibility on the site. Of course, there was only so much time, and both conversations would have strayed from the original purpose of the panel. So I suppose I should really be congratulating the moderators for keeping us on track!
Audience participation was interesting as well. One man said, “Call me old fashioned, but I don’t even allow comments on my restaurant criticism blog.”
I muttered, “You’re old fashioned,” prompting the people around me to nod or vocally agree. To me, that moment was one of many testaments to the increasing power of social media. As Blossom said in Content Nation, people are no longer content to listen to top down messages. They want a two-way dialogue instead. If you read a restaurant criticism blog that doesn’t allow comments, you might as well be reading a magazine. At least with a magazine you get that inky smell and the satisfaction of holding its weight in your hands.
Let’s face it. The world is changing. Restaurants and other local businesses can choose to roll with the times, shape up, and listen to customer critiques or they can continue to offer those old-fashioned comment cards and get left behind in Web 2.0’s sizeable wake.
No matter what, I’ll continue to Yelp. Care to friend me?