The Real Yelp: Secretly Undermining The Restaurant Business

For some reason, the wrong idea about Yelp is floating around. It puts Yelp above criticism. But for however handy Yelp is, it isn’t what it could be. It isn’t concerned with bringing out the best in people.

Yelp is a business, plain and simple. Yelp makes money; in fact the owners would have made hundreds of millions if Google had bought them last year. And who provides the information, you and me. It’s our taste buds, our opinions. They control the system and for that they make millions in advertising, but they do not write the content. My point is that there are many assumptions about Yelp that just aren’t true. This is disconcerting because livelihoods are at stake. To put it bluntly, Yelp has become the arbiter for tens of thousands of small businesses (especially restaurants), affecting many with impunity.

Systematic Ills of Yelp

Let’s consider the whole enterprise of Yelp. I mean how the system works. First we must start with the nature of reviewing. We all know everyone has an opinion, but who has the power to let their opinion ring out louder than others. Reviewing is a delicate task that needs expertise and experience. Professional reviewers are capable of this. They will describe the food, trying to transmit the taste, the look and the smell through words. Accuracy is always on their mind. What’s more, they know the issues in the preparation each food and areas of taste preference of their readership. With years of experience, they can tell the difference between the two, and how they interplay. You see where I am going. Influencing many other people’s decisions is a lot of responsibility. In short, I am calling into question our ability to decide for others because we aren’t able to consider them in our assessment.

Some may argue that it’s the same as word of mouth only through the Internet. That is far from the truth. When a friend makes a suggestion, they temper it and think it over because they will be held accountable for it. Word of mouth forces us to consider others. And erroneous word of mouth has consequences. The same thing does not exist for Yelp in the present form. Additionally, when we take the advice of someone we know, we act with some knowledge of their preferences and biases. Such a thing does not exist on Yelp, or takes a long time to determine. It seems the exception to the rule, as Yelp couples review with local search, that a person follows another opinion that coincides with their own.

Through the rating system, Yelp can hurt established restaurants unjustly. This is because Yelp is not the cumulative, real-time assessment of a restaurant but historical profile. In statistics, one can gain a good measure of majority opinion with 30 random people. So the rankings serve little purpose after a certain number. After reaching a certain point, the accumulated number reviews suppress a restaurant’s capacity to improve, not to mention it allows restaurants with good scores to coast on their reputation.

Through the rating system, Yelp can hurt new restaurants unreasonably. This happens as a result of a cycle that develops as people go to restaurants they see have good reviews. More reviews come in and a restaurant takes off. The only problem is that a new restaurant across the street produces food of the same quality. But there are few reviewers. Therefore, people chose what they think is the sure thing and restrain their curiosity. It rewards the status quo. These cycles, which do have some benefits, will become more and more pronounced in the future.

Even worse, Yelp has a severe conflict of interest. It takes money for extras ad money from the restaurant it supposed to handle objectively. Yelp may say that’s the role of the reviewer—they keep the system honest. But Yelp gives preferential treatment that goes beyond advertisements, making me skeptical that their advertising practices are as wholesome as apple pie. Yelp, in various ways, singles out restaurants because of traffic or rating and all those practices invite abuse. Even if it is minor, the rating/traffic of different restaurants are so close, it can be a windfall for anyone with greedy motives.

Yelp takes away the mystery and excitement that goes along with trying a new restaurant. Each of us is different, and the average review/rating can never completely reflect what we think or feel. There is no average person. But expectations, or the lack thereof, matter. If we go to places with high expectations (as hundreds of people seem to like it on Yelp), we are setting up ourselves for disappointment (even if the food is reasonably good). Since we ignore the element of discovery, we are undercutting satisfaction. Studies have shown similar things as people like something more if they are told it’s expensive. The same thing holds true for happiness. Happiness depends on discovery, and expectations handicap it. Although the food quality of a restaurant may be constant, our ability to enjoy food is undermined when you take away the feeling of discovery. With Yelp, we are following the crowd, not our curiosity.

Yelp’s Shortcomings

Now that’s just the system. Yelp, apart from their system, has made some wrong turns.

Yelp has situated itself as a social site. We can argue if that has actually been accomplished or not. But one thing is for sure, Yelp has encouraged being cool over being helpful. You can select if a Yelp review was cool or funny along with useful. Yelp, unlike Wikipedia, does not care enough about the way their information matches up to the real world. They are interested in the Yelp experience, that people think well of Yelp even if they do not particularly like the reviews. That makes sense. They are a company.  For example the ratings system is a perfect way of the company distancing itself from its reviewers. We forget that they are made up of individual people making judgments. The evidence for their inaccuracy is on the bottom of the page. They didn’t like the restaurant because they don’t like French food, or they don’t like the price (most restaurants have menus on the internet), or they didn’t like how busy it was (well with a Yelp score like that what did you expect). One only needs to read to see that many of the reasons given for a score are unreasonable. But since it is the amalgamation of scores, we feel that it’s more accurate.

Also, unlike Chowhound, there is no response function on Yelp. It is not a conversation. It is more like an open mic (but at least at an open mic you get the cold shoulder from the audience) where everyone speaks their mind and no one has to answer to remarks that they make. For example, Yelp does not take down the most silly or wrong reviews. One restaurant was accused of having a terrible brunch. Too bad they didn’t have a brunch. Yelp didn’t intervene. Yelp isn’t interested enough in integrity.

Yelp has done other things that are unsavory. They have paid reviewers to review in areas where they don’t have a presence. Some have accused them of pressuring restaurants/businesses to advertise in exchange for better treatment. I expect this to continue in the future as Yelp becomes more and more dominant and people have less and less places to go to.

One thing you can say about the restaurant industry, but not say about the restaurant review industry, is people decide. There is no middle man, no second hand information. People who go to a restaurant find out if it’s for them and then they will decide with their feet. Quality will never fall away in the food business. Taste buds always carry the day. But the review business, because it is a business, will communicate it only as well as the people who run it, and information is tricky. It can unfairly suppress and reward without any repercussions. Visitors who are disappointed might feel like they don’t have a choice or blame the reviewers. That’s because people can only operate within the system and community they are given.

I don’t expect Yelp to go away. I don’t think that’s realistic unless someone comes up with a Wikipedia model, one that treasures standards and information over a business agenda. One that asks more than the Coliseum style opinion, thumbs up or down, one way or the other, sinking a business or saving it.  Businesses like Yelp that purport to be anything other than act in the interests of their business can wreak the most havoc on the interplay between fact and opinion. Because restaurants have a direct feedback with their customers, they, and the system prior to review site, are a more natural and fair business. Why should we let indirect businesses have the power over business at its best?

I believe that the only thing is to demand more from Yelp. Yelp anyway functions off the work and thoughts of people. They might not ask much; they set the bar low and by that, make us less than our potential. But it’s time for us to insist they do so especially if they intend to keep any credibility. Are they just a couple computer programmers out for a quick buck? Or do they really want to help American’s make wise decisions? Because all we need is another institution out for itself that misinforms the public.