Monday, June 11, 2007

Why Yelp! Sucks

Our nation, every wondrously putrid acre of it was built on democracy. The premise that all educated land-owning white males had the right to a say in how their nation would be governed. What did they come up with? An elaborate republican system that would become increasingly centralized and imperialistic with time while spawning massive spiraling bureaucracies. It's in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, give it a read.

What they didn't envision was a world where any old douche bag with a computer could make declarative assertions about the quality of restaurants.

This started with Zagat's (it probably started with some cocksucker in ancient Rome who collected opinions on stone tablets, but the Masons make sure no record exists). What was originally one sexually frustrated couple's attempts to correlate their friends' restaurant reviews is now a guidebook of international authority.

What people forget is despite this institutionalization, Zagat is still just a bunch on uninformed persons' opinions based on no credentials or rubric. It's meaningless folks! No more important than your opinion or mine.

This is why citysearch, Yelp!, et al are dangerous. They lend institutional credibility to anybody's opinion. There is not strength in numbers, more does not necessarily equal better. Besides the fact that self-righteous assholes are more likely to post their criticisms than their praises, users of these sites are also going to gradually develop similarly focused opinions. It's groupthink. It happens. Take a look at Yelp! and pay close attention to what people criticize and how they do it. The vast majority of reviewers are going to overemphasize service complaints and are going to be uncritical in their food reviews--using terminology as to what "works" and does not "work" instead of approaching the food critically.

Here comes the interjection--aren't you a self-righteous asshole posting opinions on the internet?

I most certainly am.

What I don't have behind me is a machine that lends credibility to what I write beyond the credibility that my own opinion brings. I'm one man with one opinion. I try to be informative, critical, helpful, and eminently subjective but all that I write is just that.

And this is why individual food critics are better than democratic shouting matches on websites. They have the authority of one man or woman and that one man or woman's palate and taste.

Despite his pretendings of objectivity, Michael Bauer of the SF Chronicle has very particular tastes that are easily read. You can learn whether a restaurant might interest you not based on the end 1-4 star assessment, but from the content of the review. Maverick, a restaurant which Bauer only gave two stars I went to because it sounded like something interesting based on what he wrote about. I also know that Bauer has a thing about loud restaurants and he dinged Maverick by AT LEAST a half-star if not more because he found it oppressively loud. I don't care so much about that so I didn't factor that aspect of his review into my equation. Wood Tavern, a restaurant that I had very mixed feelings about I figured Bauer would love and sure enough, he gave it three stars not soon after I ate there.

Are there people who slavishly follow Michael Bauer's reviews? Sure. But at least they can't pretend that they're doing anything else. A Yelp!, Zagat, or citysearch user can claim that they're decision is based on that institution's rating as an opinion clearinghouse. Not to mention that Yelp! and citysearch are forprofit entities that sell services that can boost restaurants' exposure on their sites. But nevermind that.

The Michelin Guides (and most travel guides in general) are better alternatives to review websites and Zagat because they rate based on a rubric that you can either agree or disagree with. The Michelin Guide reviews restaurants and attractions based on a rubric that has been shaped by what they have come to understand that their members/users expect and appreciate. The criteria is nothing but the dubious assertion that everyone has a right to have their opinion codified into some sort of worthwhile standard (what's oft-forgotten about Wikipedia is that despite it's open-source democratic editing process, there are set criteria and there is an oversight board).

And if you want the amateur perspective (and there's nothing wrong with that--the professionals are just amateurs who get paid) read food blogs. Bloggers are going to get more in depth than a 100 word Yelp! post. You'll get a sense of that writers' tastes and critical skills. You'll know whether you have similar tastes. You'll probably learn something. Enjoy it as you would any other writer's work. If you're traveling, pick up a guide that provides information more than it levies judgments and go with an entity/agency/author whose tastes are in line with your own.

In conclusion? Read mainstream restaurant reviews. Read food blogs. Boycott Yelp!

That exclamation point is part of Yelp!'s name. I'm not trying to exclaim that you should boycott Yelp! I'm just saying it.

20 comments:

Zack said...

Yelp is awesome.

Well, I agree entirely about Zagat. Zagat reviews are essentially faceless, and therefore worthless. However, each Yelp (if you include the ! you are either sarcastic or a tool) review is written by a person whose picture is often right there and whose often has a number of other reviews. People in Yelp reviews will say very forthcoming things like, "I really like [adjective] [food], but [restaurant]'s [food] is too [different adjective]." So it's not like you're being left entirely in the dark.

For a place like Maverick, yes, the warm, in-depth newspaper-style treatment is quite helpful. There are a lot of restaurants out there, tons of which do not have any existing reviews at all (and even if they do, the reviews are often outdated by multiple years). Restaurant reviews of the sort you are defending are not frequent enough to be dependable for anything except random recommendations of usually relatively fancy places.

I don't think anybody in their right mind considers Yelp reviews to have "institutional credibility." Yelp's entire purpose is USER reviews. Yelp is a directory of user reviews. There is no institutional Yelp voice. If anybody tells you otherwise, smack them.

Yelp is very good at generating leads. If you think, as a normal person very well might, I wonder what a good sushi place in such-and-such neighborhood is, then Yelp can help you with that question. SFGate is going to be useless. So is the East Bay Express. You ask Yelp where to find the best banh mi in downtown Oakland, and Yelp will tell you, dude, it's Cam Huong or BC Deli. You try to get that information from a formal reviewer and you will starve. I buy my coffee beans from Blue Bottle Coffee Company, which (believe it or not) I discovered by searching Yelp for coffee beans, not by patiently waiting at my doorstep for a Chronicle to arrive and tell me about it on page E-18.

Yelp is a machine for the accelerated and highly efficient distribution of hearsay. It is easy to search, and its content is, while less deep than a newspaper's, so, so much broader as to render the comparison laughable. If a given restaurant is reviewed both by the Express and YelpGirl65, yeah, read the Express first. But that's too rare to rely on.

Ian McKellar said...

With Yelp, I get a variety of reviews and typically I'll glance at the other reviews from the highest and lowest rating reviewers to get a sense of their style and what makes them like or dislike a place. This is a little harder than reading the Truth in a Michelin guide, but in the end I'll get a better sense of whether I'll like a place.

David J.D. said...

I wasn't saying that Yelp! itself was an institutional voice, but that it ascribes an institutional authority to random reviews, in a similar manner to Zagat's.

If that's not the case, then who decided to include a 1-5 star rating system (without rating criteria) and who sends out "People Love us on Yelp!" stickers?

A "yelper" making recommendations ot other "yelpers" as part of an active online community is a helpful thing, and I acknowledge that you can have a more engaged understanding of reviewers' tastes if you're a member of the community (though I'd argue that there's something questionable as to bias when you have an online community site made up of amateur reviewers, as opposed to restaurant review message boards on a less specific online community site) but the fact is that Yelp! and citysearch reviews come up usually in the top five of any google search for a restaurant and there are many non-yelpers who read these reviews and see that oh-so-definitive star rating.

I'm sure there are lots of good detailed reviewers on Yelp!, but there are also people whose reviews read: "I am truly not sure why people continue to frequent this place, given all the actually good/great restaurants in S.F. Service is abysmal, and the food is not much better. I've been forced to dine there a few times, each time hoping for a better experience, but no....still poor service and mediocre food. Please do yourself a favor and try any other restaurant, you'll be glad you did."

Notice the lack of anything specific. And when you're reviewing Zuni Cafe which (like it or not) is an established SF dining landmark, you should probably get down to few more details.

And then there's the guy who gave T-Rex BBQ one star based solely on reading the menu.

David J.D. said...

Side note. I found Blue Bottle coffee at the Berkeley Farmer's Market.

It's fucking good coffee.

Zack said...

I don't consider "People love us on Yelp!" to be institutional.

If Yelp included separate rating criteria (for decor, value, etc), nobody would use them properly. I think you know this. The people who did use them properly would probably see them as an excuse to not really explain things in text, and everybody else would just go 5/5/5/5 and say "ok this place is really dirty but I had to give it a 5 for decor because the food is that good, and they give me free drinks, and that's 5 stars." No sense demanding of your users things they aren't ever going to give you.

(Also, Yelp is more than just food reviews, and a category like "selection" is ten times as important in a hardware store as it is in a restaurant.)

The current star system is actually helpful, I think, but I'm talking too much already.

If "non-Yelpers" see a star rating and make a decison based just on that, well, their stupidity is not my problem, and if it's yours, you have my sympathy. But the fault does not lie with either Yelp or the people on Yelp.

Gregory said...

Yelp sucks. It is a haven for syncophants and racists. Would not spend one thin dime investing in this hate site.

luvfood said...

the notion that yelp has something useful to offer in the way of legitimate and reliable reviews of local businesses is nothing short of laughable. and it would be even more laughable if not for yelp's deplorable practice of paying for reviews and offering "elite squad" status to those that can churn out reviews by the boat load - a tactic that preys on the warped sensibilities of internet junkies while also creating contrived and artificially inflated website traffic.

Tim said...

I'm definitely in a love/hate relationship with Yelp.

On the one hand, I love that I can post reviews on places and have people see them, maybe go to a place I recommended or skip a place I say stay away from. I wanted to start a foodblog but Yelp did all the work for me, and I can appreciate that.

The thing I -don't- like about Yelp are the actual Yelpers. Snide, cult-y assholes who feel it's their duty in life to ostracize people who don't fit into their narrowly defined cliques. I didn't get along with the assholes in San Diego, so I attempted to have that account removed and start over fresh with a new one. But Yelp won't delete my old account for some reason, so I just went ahead with the new one... which ended up getting nuked when some tattle-tale L.A. Elite flagged my account. Now I've got people in both cities making fun of me and antagonizing me and for what? Just because I march to the beat of a different drummer?

So yeah, Yelp. Great site ran by shitty people.

ladymissm said...

Yes, Yelp is a problem, it's the same problem anywhere with anonymous people, some are gonna be jerks, why? cuz they can!
I am a server and I've received a few bumps and scratches that hurt my feelings and surprised me. In my biz you hear about it and it can be devastating! The thing is, it almost always surprises the server....either they didn't know they came off that way or the customer NEVER SAID ANYTHING about how unhappy they were until they were home in front of the warm comforting glow of their computer! We can't fix the problems we never know about! Stuff happens, believe me stuff happens in every job, right? Of course, in a perfect world things would go along and there would be no need for complaints or negotiations, but when it happens ya gotta be grown up about it! Ask for what you want, most times you'll find you will be happily accommodated!! Every time I get bad and good feedback from my customers in the dining room I thank them. I try to make the communication easy for them, because it is true that if they didn't tell us, we would never know. Everyone's afraid to deal! Maybe they are afraid of getting their food spit in, is that it? Well, you can complain nicely, it doesn't have to be an ordeal. Most of us are "pleasers" in this biz, we want to help and we want you to be happy! I figure a person has to be feeling pretty bad about where they lie in the pecking order of life if they have to run home and sucker punch their server!!

I concur on the love/hate thing with Yelp, I use it and I also write reviews. I try to set a good example and not let a few bad apples ruin it.
I guess Yelp wouldn't really work with the "If you don't have anything nice to say...." rule but the most important rule is the old "Do unto others..." Also translated as "Don't be a Hater, dude!"

lazysundae said...

the only time i read yelp is for "the week in yelp"

is that column still alive?

Gaetano said...

Yelp! hosts a circle jerk for clamorous juveniles, it certainly does suck.

naumkeag stand said...

well said. worst site EVER. i linked "why Yelp! sucks" to my blog. thanks, man.

ck1942requestsbareback said...

I think yelp sucks, too. There are a lot of alternatives creeping up, though. There are of course established sites like citysearch and then there are newer sites like fairplayreviews.com

Ari said...

"Not to mention that Yelp! and citysearch are forprofit entities that sell services that can boost restaurants' exposure on their sites. But nevermind that."

Uh...why the hell would anyone nevermind that? The whispers are pretty insistent that Yelp harasses people to advertise with them and offers to get negative reviews off their pages. Even the one place I volunteer at on Yelp (i.e. the one local place I would even be insider-y enough to know about it from) has been harassed by Yelp.

underbridge said...

my problem with yelp is people bitch about EVERYTHING when they go to a restaurant. my glass wasnt filled with water right away. i didnt like the decor so i am going to give the place 1 star. wtf! the waitress looked at me funny so 1 star. the people should judge the food and if the food is okay just give it 3 stars. NO restaurant should be given 1 star unless the owner of the restaurant came out and was being a jerk to you or the food was inedible, not because the hostess (usually a 17 year old kid) didnt seat you right away. Most of these restaurants are family run businesses and trying their very best. so giving 1 star to a restaurant, what is your point, you want the place to go under and put the owners on the street?! maybe that is the best that they can do.

Anonymous said...

It is so true that yelp sucks. Just opened a small restaurant and after refusing paying them enormous money for ad all my great reviews starts slowly disappearing in filter and I got left with only so so ones. So now I have 8 reviews left in rating and around 30 in filter. I mean how objective yelp can get. I learn a tough way!!!! Yelp you suck!!! It is all about how much deal a business has with you!!!

Anonymous said...

FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION PHONE NUMBER 1-877-382-4357
i am a small business owner who has run afoul of a competitor.
the competing business has bombarded me (using YELP) with out and out fabrications, libelous accusations, and outrageous drivel via what i can only assume to be one writer with several pseudonyms or one (very unethical) 'on-line presence' service with a stable of (fiction) writers masquerading as unhappy clients.
i have written to yelp on many occasions to explain. you have a better chance of finding God. i haven't found a phone # you can call (unless, of course, you want to buy advertising), and all my letters have elicited only (the same, word for word), boilerplate answers generated by some robot.
i finally got so angry i called the FTC (federal trade commission), at 877-382-4357.
they filed a complaint, and said if they see a pattern (meaning a lot of angry businesspeople filing complaints) they will go after them (yelp).
the gentleman i spoke with seemed particularly interested in the "extortion for advertising" angle.
so what are you waiting for??? if yelp has wronged you as it has me, CALL NOW AND FILE A COMPLAINT!!!
FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION---- 1-877-382-4357

Anonymous said...

gramFEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION PHONE NUMBER 1-877-382-4357
i am a small business owner who has run afoul of a competitor.
the competing business has bombarded me (using YELP) with out and out fabrications, libelous accusations, and outrageous drivel via what i can only assume to be one writer with several pseudonyms or one (very unethical) 'on-line presence' service with a stable of (fiction) writers masquerading as unhappy clients.
i have written to yelp on many occasions to explain. you have a better chance of finding God. i haven't found a phone # you can call (unless, of course, you want to buy advertising), and all my letters have elicited only (the same, word for word), boilerplate answers generated by some robot.
i finally got so angry i called the FTC (federal trade commission), at 877-382-4357.
they filed a complaint, and said if they see a pattern (meaning a lot of angry businesspeople filing complaints) they will go after them (yelp).
the gentleman i spoke with seemed particularly interested in the "extortion for advertising" angle.
so what are you waiting for??? if yelp has wronged you as it has me, CALL NOW AND FILE A COMPLAINT!!!
FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION---- 1-877-382-4357

Anonymous said...

I hate Yelp filter! I own 2 restaurants and I find that rarely people that have amazing experiences at my restaurant (which is a lot) take the time out to post up a good review. If they do, and post a 2 sentence review, it is deleted.

If a customer posts a negative review, even if they only have 1 review and it is 2 sentences, it stays UP! Their filter is horrible.

If you are dining out and do not have a great experience you should talk to the restaurant's manager. I'm sure that they will gladly discount food at the time of service or even buy you a free meal. Instead people think that Yelping will make them feel better about that experience. Restaurant owners want you to have an amazing experience at their restaurants and will do anything to make their customers satisfied. If you don't call the restaurant directly, they want to know.

I have 2 thriving restaurants, with good and bad Yelp reviews. I rely on word-of-mouth for my advertising. It's working just fine for me. Do I wish we had all 5 star reviews...YES! I have decided to use Yelp as an asset. When I have those guests that just have a wonderful experience, I tell them to Yelp. Hopefully, my internet Yelp rating will go up and our potential guests will see a true picture of my restaurants.

If you have a great experience at a restaurant please Yelp, it will help to counteract the not so great reviews.

Anonymous said...

Yelp Talk is always lorded over by Aspberger's afflicted adults who run it like the clique they were excluded from as teenager's.
They police the forum and drive out any newcomers or people who don't fit into their 20 hour a day, pissing into a empty twoliter lifestyle, and claim that OTHERS ARE MENTALLY ILL..
Puh-leeze.