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weinoo

Why You Shouldn't Trust Yelp

48 posts in this topic

Yesterday, front page news in the NY Times, an article entitled In a Race to Out-Rave Rivals, 5 Star Web Reviews Go for $5.

Not that I didn't know there were shills on a lot of these sites, and not that I trust any of the reviews on said sites, but the article is still a bit disturbing...

“For $5, I will submit two great reviews for your business,” offered one entrepreneur on the help-for-hire site Fiverr, one of a multitude of similar pitches. On another forum, Digital Point, a poster wrote, “I will pay for positive feedback on TripAdvisor.” A Craigslist post proposed this: “If you have an active Yelp account and would like to make very easy money please respond.”

Isn't it great to know how industrious people are?

Of course, we have good old eGullet to trust, along with a few others, where shills are generally quickly sniffed out.

So where else do you turn when you want an honest opinion?


Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

mweinstein@eGstaff.org

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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I don't trust any review sites, ever since one that shall remain nameless offered me considerably more than $5 to revise my scathing (but polite) review of a nonexistent hotel. Yes, you read that correctly. This hotel also demanded an advance deposit for the first night, and (no surprise) refused to return it. On Yelp, this hotel has nothing but 5-star reviews. Great reviews on Tripadvisor, too, although if you look at the forums, you read about a different story.

I trust the reports of people I know who've had direct experience of a place, and who know something of the sorts of things I like. Everything else I take with a heaping fistful of salt.


Michaela, aka "Mjx"
Manager, eG Forums
mscioscia@egstaff.org

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Chowhound isn't too polluted with fake reviews, but you still don't know how sophisticated the reviewer is. A Zagat-like problem.

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It's something of a chronic topic even in past eG threads. In case anyone isn't up to date on earlier publicity:

Wall Street Journal, 2007: "The Price of a Four-Star Rating"

Los Angeles Times, 2009: "Yelp should review its disclosure efforts"

East Bay Express, 2009: "Yelp and the Business of Extortion 2.0"

San Francisco anti-Yelp newspaper ad discussed by an online marketing firm, 2011: "Yelp is Evil"

A perennial point is Yelp's denials of claims that Yelp representatives offered to adjust reviews in exchange for advertising buys by the reviewed businesses. The denials paint a particular picture when coupled with years of such claims by many separate businesses in the media reports. I have also received detailed credible private reports of at least two cases of such pressuring, one case recent and verbatim, from respected local small business owners with reputations for integrity. What's novel in this new publicity is the claim that other people too are now playing a pay-for-ratings gane and from multiple directions. (Could this be the opening of a freer market in online payola??)

All of which impugns mostly the numerical-ratings angle. Yelp still collects many honest independent comments. Its real utility for consumers (like that of Internet advice in general) may consist in spotting and sticking to individual commentators who have something real to contribute.

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I take all online reviews with a grain of salt, including those on eG and its ilk. I've received just as much bad advice here and on other boards as anywhere else, and there are just as many "friends of the house" posting rave reviews here as anywhere else (who may not be getting paid cash, but a comped meal or course is a form of payment, whether disclosed or not).

Instead of looking at any site as a trustworthy source of reviews, I look at individual posters/bloggers. If you read enough, you find which posters have tastes most similar to your own, and who at least appear to be trustworthy.

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I'm safe from that sort of thing. I don't research, I just go if I'm interested/curious. What happens next determines if I'll ever go back but I'll give almost anybody that first chance.


It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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While I usually opt for personal recommendations, I sometimes check out blogs I trust. The problem with that is, that I haven't really been following many blogs as of late, and if you're not following, how can you possibly know if you trust that person's opinion? Plus, if I am visiting a random city, they are harder to find. The good thing is, sometimes, you find long explanations and lots of pics. That's when they are best....

If I find something I like, I usually cross-reference as well.

I had a pretty good experience in Rome recently this way. I was happier than I might have been had I taken my chances.

I've never really been steered wrong by Egullet, thankfully, but I have to admit I do wish there was some updated Italy posts/reviews. We don't have much Italian traffic anymore here! I guess that's off topic though!

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P.S I used to work for a restaurant in NY that forced its staff to post fake good reviews. He even posted his own. They were so fake, it was a joke.I couldn't stand that guy.

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I take all online reviews with a grain of salt, including those on eG and its ilk. I've received just as much bad advice here and on other boards as anywhere else, and there are just as many "friends of the house" posting rave reviews here as anywhere else (who may not be getting paid cash, but a comped meal or course is a form of payment, whether disclosed or not).

Instead of looking at any site as a trustworthy source of reviews, I look at individual posters/bloggers. If you read enough, you find which posters have tastes most similar to your own, and who at least appear to be trustworthy.

Exactly: no matter what site you go to, or what newspaper/blog/Facebook page/Twitter feed you read, the world is littered with reviews that are not going to reflect your experience of the restaurant. Sometimes they are paid shills, sometimes they are "friends of the house" and sometimes they are just people whose tastes don't match yours. In my opinion you *must* seek out individual reviewers whose opinions are in line with your own and seek their advice. I find Yelp, Zagat, etc. totally worthless mainly because of the inherent disassociation of the review from the person behind it. I have no interest in the aggregated opinions of thousands: only the single opinion of someone whose tastes are in line with mine.


Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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So where else do you turn when you want an honest opinion?

I turn to people whose opinions are as reliable as the Northern star.

None are on Yelp as far as I know.

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Exactly: no matter what site you go to, or what newspaper/blog/Facebook page/Twitter feed you read, the world is littered with reviews that are not going to reflect your experience of the restaurant.

I don't know that I'd lump the word of the professional newspaper or magazine reviewer in with that of the yelper or twitee. Certainly, your experience or my experience at a particular restaurant may be better or worse than that of said reviewer; but I tend to trust the pro a bit more.


Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

mweinstein@eGstaff.org

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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So, some amount of fraud completely discredits the source and instead I should, what, throw darts to determine my restaurant? If we all had some fabulous source of recommendations, there would be no Yelp.

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I used to be on Yelp, a LOT! And I've gotten to know some yelpers (some in person) over the years. There are actually some trustworthy people on there, you just need to know who they are.

However, Yelp (the company), like many other websites, are out to make money. Apparently some yelpers as well. And there are bloggers out there who do the same thing. They demand free meals from restaurants and threaten to write unfavorable reviews when that doesn't happen.

When money isn't a factor, personal taste comes into play. Even with people I trust, we don't always like the same restaurants.

Instead of believing that one website/blog/reviewer is good or bad, I take all of them with a gain of salt.

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I don't often trust the great reviews because who knows who wrote it or why or what that person's tastes are if he or she is honest in the first place. But sometimes the negative reviews can be helpful in steering me away from a place ( if it doesn't sound like its written by a nut).

But then... I was reading a review of a Mediterranean restaurant in Toronto yesterday which raved about the great Japanese food and gracious Japanese servers. Someone had obviously gotten their wires crossed.

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Hmm, I didn't realize folks were using Yelp or Urbanspoon for the reviews/ratings. I generally use them as data sources: what restaurants are near me when I'm in an unfamiliar place, hours, menus, prices, etc. I will read the opinions at times, but they're pretty worthless (to me).

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Exactly: no matter what site you go to, or what newspaper/blog/Facebook page/Twitter feed you read, the world is littered with reviews that are not going to reflect your experience of the restaurant.

I don't know that I'd lump the word of the professional newspaper or magazine reviewer in with that of the yelper or twitee. Certainly, your experience or my experience at a particular restaurant may be better or worse than that of said reviewer; but I tend to trust the pro a bit more.

At a minimum the pro is (supposed to) have a baseline of experience in dining out. Maybe do some fact-checking.

For individual Yelp reviews, I wish you could flag them as:

- reviewer has no familiarity with this cuisine/food

- reviewer has totally unrealistic expectations

- reviewer went on opening night and complained that things weren't perfect

- reviewer is a vegetarian/vegan reviewing a steakhouse/meat-centric restaurant

- reviewer is posting a retaliatory negative review because wasn't comped when asked

- reviewer is superficial positive review based only upon attractiveness of wait staff/bartenders

- reviewer is reviewing the wrong restaurant

- reviewer is giving a poor review because they preferred the establishment that used to be in the same space, but closed

- etc.

A friend calls Yelp "what happens when you give Livejournal users credit cards." Real reviews from real people remind us that real people are often idiots. Not to mention that the default filter is the unexplained "Yelp Sort" where "certain" unfavorable reviews get filtered out.

I use Yelp on my iPhone has a directory as well but I believe the overall star rating affects the order of the search results, especially in less-populated areas.


"I'll put anything in my mouth twice." -- Ulterior Epicure

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At a minimum the pro is (supposed to) have a baseline of experience in dining out. Maybe do some fact-checking.

For individual Yelp reviews, I wish you could flag them as:

- reviewer has no familiarity with this cuisine/food

- reviewer has totally unrealistic expectations

- reviewer went on opening night and complained that things weren't perfect

- reviewer is a vegetarian/vegan reviewing a steakhouse/meat-centric restaurant

- reviewer is posting a retaliatory negative review because wasn't comped when asked

- reviewer is superficial positive review based only upon attractiveness of wait staff/bartenders

- reviewer is reviewing the wrong restaurant

- reviewer is giving a poor review because they preferred the establishment that used to be in the same space, but closed

- etc.

That would be great!


Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

mweinstein@eGstaff.org

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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You've brought up another point which amazes me: Do people really ask for comps? I've been out with professional reviewers and that thought or action has never crossed their minds over careers spanning 30+ years.

As a matter of fact, that is way beyond my comprehension.


Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

mweinstein@eGstaff.org

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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Probably the best thing they can do is fight fire with fire. Restaurants need a better grasp of social media and need to use it to expose these blackmailers, since that's what it is. For that matter, how does the justice system view blackmail/extortion between two private parties? Criminal or civil? A couple of lawsuits or a warrant might solve this nonsense. Esp since these folks were dumb enough to put it in an easily trackable format like email.

Restaurants aren't perfect, and I have no problem saying in a public forum when they're not, but sheesh. Blackmail? Seriously?


Joanna G. Hurley

"Civilization means food and literature all round." -Aldous Huxley

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Exactly: no matter what site you go to, or what newspaper/blog/Facebook page/Twitter feed you read, the world is littered with reviews that are not going to reflect your experience of the restaurant.

I don't know that I'd lump the word of the professional newspaper or magazine reviewer in with that of the yelper or twitee. Certainly, your experience or my experience at a particular restaurant may be better or worse than that of said reviewer; but I tend to trust the pro a bit more.

Like anything else in life the Pros can be good, bad & average. Even when they might be competent, methodical & coherent it doesn't mean you are going to like their recommendations.

Here in Sonoma County the main local critic is pretty clueless (in my opinion)... any "ethnic place" with dumbed down food, mainstream ingredient choices, has a wine list & petty bourgeoisie decor automatically ranks higher than a little mom & pop with fantastic food but humble decor etc., Further the guy never orders the interesting dishes on a menu he seems to have a fairly narrow palette... maybe the Cheesecake Factory crowd likes him... I don't

At a bigger level... the Mark Bittman / New York Times coverage of Mexican Cuisine has been absolutely atrocious... the amount of stupid, unresearched, "absolutist" statements they make on every single article, particularly the ones where they travel to Mexico is unbelievable for such a reputable publication.

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prasantrin (Aug. 21): I've received just as much bad advice here and on other boards as anywhere else

No doubt. However, I haven't seen eG or any other site surface, for years, persistently, in broad-based serious complaints such as: Restaurants catering "Elite squad" parties, attendees giving (unacknowledged) positive reviews in return [Wall St. Journal]. ("Elite squad" in my region incidentally includes people posting "reviews" of restaurants they avowedly never ate at, and creating duplicate restaurant entries and posting in them, one path to a high "review" count.) Businesses reporting pressure to pay "insurance," or admitting explicitly paying "to have a 'favorite review' topping the list" [LA Times]. Lawsuits by small-business groups (including in my area; related story in E. Bay Express link above) forcing Yelp to change some of its practices a while back. Reliable small business owners privately reporting extortion-like advertising sales for years; others taking out newspaper advertisements calling the site "Evil."

These factors go beyond the issue of review quality from indiscriminantly aggregated comments, an issue shared by Zagat and other sites soliciting self-selected "reviews." (E.g., Google, the Open Table reservation service, the Restaurant listings themselves on Chowhound, etc.)

weinoo (Aug. 22): Do people really ask for comps? I've been out with professional reviewers and that thought or action has never crossed their minds over careers spanning 30+ years. As a matter of fact, that is way beyond my comprehension.

A huge topic, with aspects well beyond this forum. I've traveled sometimes to research restaurants in specific regions and been offered comped meals by some high-end ones (I always refused, but tapped the restaurant personnel for background info which they gladly furnished). Conscientious professional reviewers worry less about "comp" issues than being recognized, and receiving atypical service or food (Mimi Sheraton, who briefly tutored me on these subjects in the 90s, is full of stories from around NYC). I've talked to enough high-end restaurant managers to hear the weird little moves they have to be on guard against -- things most diners probably aren't aware of. Opportunistic "complaints" (though seldom as exotic as planting a severed finger in the food), requests for money back after a week's reflection on a meal evidently enjoyed at the time, gambits by arrogant kids claiming some online presence the manager never heard of (for good reason) and expecting it entitles them to free meals (?!)

I hear this more from high-end restaurants. The petty maneuvers get more frequent as the bills go up. (The finger case was at Wendy's, but that was a grander gambit, aiming for a legal claim and cash settlement, I gather).

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At a minimum the pro is (supposed to) have a baseline of experience in dining out. Maybe do some fact-checking.

For individual Yelp reviews, I wish you could flag them as:

- reviewer has no familiarity with this cuisine/food

- reviewer has totally unrealistic expectations

- reviewer went on opening night and complained that things weren't perfect

- reviewer is a vegetarian/vegan reviewing a steakhouse/meat-centric restaurant

- reviewer is posting a retaliatory negative review because wasn't comped when asked

- reviewer is superficial positive review based only upon attractiveness of wait staff/bartenders

- reviewer is reviewing the wrong restaurant

- reviewer is giving a poor review because they preferred the establishment that used to be in the same space, but closed

- etc.

That would be great!

You can actually flag a review if a reviewer did review the wrong restaurant.

As for the others, if you know that a reviewer may be doing any of those things, I would simply discount the review. I may not be able to change other people's actions, but I can decide for myself if a review has any merit.

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prasantrin (Aug. 21): I've received just as much bad advice here and on other boards as anywhere else

No doubt. However, I haven't seen eG or any other site surface, for years, persistently, in broad-based serious complaints such as: Restaurants catering "Elite squad" parties, attendees giving (unacknowledged) positive reviews in return [Wall St. Journal]. ("Elite squad" in my region incidentally includes people posting "reviews" of restaurants they avowedly never ate at, and creating duplicate restaurant entries and posting in them, one path to a high "review" count.) Businesses reporting pressure to pay "insurance," or admitting explicitly paying "to have a 'favorite review' topping the list" [LA Times]. Lawsuits by small-business groups (including in my area; related story in E. Bay Express link above) forcing Yelp to change some of its practices a while back. Reliable small business owners privately reporting extortion-like advertising sales for years; others taking out newspaper advertisements calling the site "Evil."

That's exactly it, MaxH. No one is paying anyone or soliciting anyone to write reviews here on eG like they are on sites like Yelp. While you might get a review that's considered bad advice here, it is still posted by a well-meaning society member who hasn't been paid or comped, or has made those facts known. Shills are usually quickly ferreted out.


Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

mweinstein@eGstaff.org

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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Hmm, I didn't realize folks were using Yelp or Urbanspoon for the reviews/ratings. I generally use them as data sources: what restaurants are near me when I'm in an unfamiliar place, hours, menus, prices, etc. I will read the opinions at times, but they're pretty worthless (to me).

I should agree with you on this one. I think Yelp should only be used for general information like contact details, menus, store details, etc. and not for the actual review of the restaurant ratings.

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