I recently attended a seminar in which a roomful of restaurant industry folks started badmouthing Yelp. Now, the reason I was sitting there was because I had scored some free tickets through Yelp, but you can bet I wasn’t going to throw myself to the wolves. I happen to think it’s an admirable concept and I do (sort of) regret not speaking up, but it really wasn’t the forum to launch a discussion about the merits and problems of a website that posts user-generated reviews (especially not with people who had clearly been burned by unfavorable reviews). Do I think there are some things written in Yelp reviews that can hurt someone's business? Yes. Do I think people should take most of these reviews seriously? Absolutely not.
I have almost never been steered wrong by Yelp recommendations because I know how to read the reviews. Is this guy clearly the scorned ex-boyfriend of the executive chef? Probably shouldn’t listen to what he says. Or vice-versa; is this girl clearly sleeping with the bartender? She might be slightly biased. Is “CheeseHead1955” a soccer mom from the middle of nowhere Wisconsin who gave her local McDonald’s 4 stars? I wouldn't take her review of Boulevard too seriously (unless you’re planning on taking your visiting Midwestern family there). It takes a little more time and effort to sift through the reviews and decide which ones you actually want to consider, but it’s worth it.
Here are some tips:
1. Make friends with people that have similar tastes to you. Look up your favorite restaurant. Find someone else who loves it. Read their other reviews. Do you generally agree with their opinions? Then be Yelp friends with them! You have to have an account set up to do this, which I recommend. You can then sort a business’s reviews to see your friends’ comments first.
2. Look for common themes and comments among the reviews for a business. If there is one two-star review among a sea of four-star reviews, you should probably ignore it. Does everyone rave about the rack of lamb? Then you might want to try the rack of lamb. Is it pretty unanimous that the chef can’t cook seafood? Don’t order seafood. Duh, right? But you’d be surprised…
3. Look at the dates of the reviews and when the person patronized the business. Is someone writing about an experience they had two years ago? Skip it! The place might not even have the same chef anymore and odds are really good that the menu has changed. Did someone go to a steak house for brunch? Well, if you’re going for a romantic dinner then who cares about their brunch experience? Make sure the reviews you’re considering are relevant and relatively current.
4. If there’s a review that seriously disturbs you and gives you doubt about going to a place, look at that person’s other reviews. If they seem sane and normal, then you might want to take heed. If this person is a rage-aholic who’s never given any business more than 2 stars...move on, my friend.
5. This is personal, but I always look for the “Elite” sign to the left of the reviewers’ names. This means that the Yelp staff thinks these people write legitimate reviews and use Yelp the way it was intended. You can sort the reviews for a business to look at only Elite member reviews. But of course, that doesn’t mean you should take all of them seriously.
The key point I wish I could have made to the woman in this seminar who declared “[Yelpers] say these horrible things about your business that you put your heart and soul into” is this: at the end of the day, these people are paying YOU for your food or service. If you’re not making them happy, don’t they have a right to stop other people from making the same mistake?
In full disclosure, I will admit that I am a Yelp Elite member. But I really believe in the purpose of Yelp. It’s a way for people to share their experiences at local establishments and help others find quality places of business. Now I don’t know anything about the rumors that Yelp blackmails business owners and all of that, but I do know that I’ve discovered some pretty amazing places through Yelp that I never would have tried otherwise. Do I think these reviews are a good replacement for professional reviews? No, no, no! But I’m pretty sure Michael Bauer hasn’t reviewed the Sushi joint down the street from me, and I want to make sure I’m not going to end up with food poisoning by eating there. So you can bet I’m checking the Yelp reviews.