While reading Josh Ozersky’s column in Time this week on the 10 best apps for foodies, something jumped out at me that I couldn’t really get past. Granted, his app recommendations are all pretty spot on, his explanation for the inclusion of the Yelp app caught my eye.
The line that includes “The reviews are generally accurate and unbiased” made me do a double take. I wasn’t sure if he was being serious. Maybe I’m just jaded, but is your impression of Yelp – or any crowd-sourced reviewing website such as Kudzu or Urbanspoon – that it contains accurate and unbiased opinions?
Considering that the website in question has long been mired in controversy over not only their unbalanced opinions – both from reactionary diners to restaurant employees spamming 5-star reviews – but also the questionable practices of their internal sales team, “unbiased” isn’t a word that I’d use.
Without a doubt, sites like these are filled with well thought-out and articulate reviews from members that take their responsibility seriously. I know more than one writer that began as a Yelper, learned that they enjoyed reviewing restaurants, and have moved on to writing either a well-respected blog or for a paid position with a legitimate publication. But for every one of those, it feels like there are five reviews that aren’t worth the time it takes to read them.
That hostess was rude to you when she couldn’t acquiesce to your unreasonable demand for five high chairs for your party of twelve with no reservation on a busy Friday night? Well, then they definitely deserve a scathing 1-star review, even though you only pitched a fit and left without actually eating anything.
For an entertaining compilation of such posts, check out this tumblr feed. WARNING: Contains adult language, NSFW, etc. (Translation: There are curse words.)
Sites like Yelp are the Gyges Ring of reviewing – it provides complete anonymity and tends to bring out the worst in people. While there are dedicated Yelpers that strive for elite status, with their profile pictures and believably real screen names, I tend to look only at the average ratings rather pouring over the individual reviews. Many non-avid users only post when they have an extreme opinion on a restaurant. They loved or hated it, and they are fired up and want their voice heard. But there are so many biased opinions that much of it becomes white noise. It has gone so far that Cornell University has been developing software to weed out fake online reviews for these kind sites.
Everyone is now a critic, and the problem is that not everyone should be. The things that people post have a very real impact on the businesses they review. I completely understand this responsibility as someone charged with evaluating restaurants and publishing my opinions on them. But even though Gene, Jenny, and I enjoy a degree of anonymity, we still have plenty of accountability. We can’t just pop off at the mouth about a restaurant without knowing that unfounded or unreasonable opinions will be swiftly called out. Just ask our editors.
Before I am slaughtered by offended Yelp advocates in the comment section, I should point out that I fully recognize that the thin line between a blogger and a Yelper is only $15 a year and a Godaddy.com account wide. And there are plenty of forgettable blogs out there guilty of the same offenses as all of the faceless John Doe accounts on Yelp. But there are only so many times I can log onto a website and read a one star review of a restaurant because the bathroom stocked scratchy toilet paper before I stop taking it seriously.
How do you approach sites like Yelp? Do you use them as a guide for where you should and shouldn’t eat, or do you take them with a huge grain of salt?
- By Jon Watson, Food & More blog