Sunday, March 28, 2010 Love it or Hate it?

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.

Restaurants Respond

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. Responds 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 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, 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 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, 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?


  1. It would be a real shame to find out that Yelp was operating underhandedly as accused. We've talked so much about how social media demands transparency and trust, I wonder if a ruling against Yelp would be forgiven by their followers or if it would mean their demise. If all you offer is info, and that info becomes suspect, what's the point? This is one case that will be interesting to follow.

  2. I think a ruling against Yelp would definitely mean their demise. Google is another internet giant that uses a secret algorithm. What if people found out that the system they have hired SEO experts and content writers in order to beat has been underhanded all along? It's a good question, and I am eagerly following the Yelp lawsuits!

  3. I had not heard of Yelp prior to this post, but I like the idea and will sign up. As an author, I've been having my work reviewed by the public for some time now (just check those Amazon five-star ratings), and I believe that anyone who deals with the public and who gives good service has nothing to fear.

    If it turns out that these guys are shakedown artists, that will be a shame for two reasons. It will be the end of them, for sure, and it should. But it will also be a blow against other review sites.

  4. I enjoy food blogs and local restaurant reviews. While might be devastating for a small restaurant that gets a negative review, it could be a lifesaver for a little known restaurant with stellar food and service. I end up a lot of really odd restaurants with friends and I'd love to write up reviews afterwards.

    I think Yelp's algorithm is interesting. It certainly makes contributors think twice. As Content Nation publishers, we have to consider what we're saying and be even handed. If all we have are negative (or positive) things to say, then our opinions won't carry meaning for our audiences.

    I would hate to find out that Yelp is engaging in shady shakedown activities. As Ray said, it would be the end of Yelp and damaging for other review sites.