Everybody’s a critic

In case you missed it, here’s my column that appeared in Thursday’s Go! section of the Monterey Herald. Last week, I took a break from writing about restaurants. Instead, I wrote about writing about restaurants, looking at the popularity of the “everyman” reviewer on Yelp. Don’t worry–restaurant reviews will be back this week!

Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of negative press for Yelp.

Seems like the trend du jour is bashing on Yelpers. But are Yelpers really as bad as people claim?

What’s Yelp? It’s a popular online review site, where users — so-called “Yelpers” — can leave reviews for local businesses. Yelp prides itself on “real people, real reviews,” so anyone can sign up for the service and write a review for pretty much anything — hair salons, doctors, hotels, mechanics.

Restaurants constitute just 25 percent of Yelp’s 20 million-plus reviews, but these reviews no doubt garner Yelp the greatest amount of notoriety.

From not-so-subtle jabs to full-out stories lambasting Yelpers, it seems like the trend du jour among many local food writers is picking on Yelp, hurling a number of hyperbolic accusations against local Yelpers. (One local columnist recently went so far as to call Yelpers “malcontent miscreants” and proceeded to compare Yelpers to Osama Bin Laden and Ted Kaczynski.)

Yelpers aren’t all negative. On the contrary, if you look at a breakdown of review ratings provided by Yelp, as of August 2010, 83 percent of reviews were three stars or higher — just 17 percent of reviews were negative reviews of one or two stars.

In fact, the percentage of five-star reviews (32 percent) was greater than the percentage of one- and two-star reviews combined.

Allegedly, local Yelpers are posting their reviews in retaliation against businesses or as a means of blackmailing restaurants to get better tables, reservations or free food.

Yelp has a variety of tools in place to weed out biased reviews from employees or customers seeking revenge against an establishment.

Automated algorithms weed out potentially bogus reviews, placing them on a separate “filtered reviews” tab with a warning questioning their authenticity.

The Yelp community is also pretty good about flagging inappropriate reviews. And, of course, I’d like to give readers a little credit too — with a little common sense, it’s not hard to spot reviews from disgruntled customers.

(Though if there are Yelpers who are indeed using their reviews as leverage for personal gain, no doubt about it, that’s utterly un-cool.)

I’d argue that some restaurant owners aren’t entirely innocent in the Yelp debate. I know of some local restaurants planting glowing, yet fake, reviews for themselves — sometimes the owner doesn’t even bother using an assumed name.

Again, Yelp’s filters generally put these reviews aside, but many still slip through the cracks.

I’ve also noticed that increasingly restaurant owners have taken to responding to their critics on Yelp. Some make an honest effort to respond to criticism.

Others instead find it more acceptable to lambast their critics. (It’s one thing to take issue with a review by engaging in a civil dialogue, but is it really appropriate to say a Yelper “disgusts you” in a public forum? That’s childish and mean-spirited — ironically the very thing for which restaurants chastise Yelpers.)

Before vilifying Yelpers, journalists might perform a little due diligence and check in with more local restaurants.

On several occasions, I’ve heard restaurants proclaiming how helpful Yelp has been in attracting business. Lopez Restaurante y Cantina in particular credits Yelp for most of its business.

Many local businesses--from First Awakenings to Fifi's--proudly boast of the positive buzz they've garnered online.

Likewise, Crepes of Brittany on Fishermen’s Wharf gets most of their customers through Yelp referrals. Those are just two examples that come to mind.

More restaurants need to realize we’ve entered the 21st century — social media is increasingly where people turn for advice. There has been a remarkable shift in consumer behavior. No longer are consumers seeking advice from experts. Instead, they’re turning to their social circles — our friends are our content experts now.

User-generated content — from Yelp, Facebook, blogs and other services — will soon outpace traditional news media outlets as our sources for news, information and opinions.

Out-of-town guests — in particular, visitors from the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley — increasingly turn to Yelp for advice on where to eat, where to stay and what to do while visiting the Monterey Peninsula.

I, for one, contribute to Yelp as a writer, but I’m also an avid user whenever I’m out of town in a new city.

Likewise, my friends — Yelpers and non-Yelpers alike — use Yelp extensively while traveling. They’ve credited Yelp with helping them find hidden gems while traveling for work or pleasure.

Sure, restaurants and other businesses approach Yelp with reluctance and a raised eyebrow — it’s a risk to invite criticism, no doubt about it. But if a business is good, they don’t have anything to worry about.

And if reviews aren’t so favorable, a business gets an immediate pulse on things that could be improved. It’s a win-win for customers and businesses.

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