Everybody’s a Critic, But on Yelp, Their Opinions Carry Weight

NORFOLK, Va. (The Virginian-Pilot/TNS) -

For many local restaurants, summer brings a boost in customers — and Yelp reviews:

My steak was juicy.

My steak was too small.

The waitress knew the gluten-free options right away.

The waiter took too long to bring bread.

Yelp, which reports 162 million unique monthly users, illustrates the rise of online review sites and the digital transformation of private citizens into public personalities. Like a hot sauce with a lingering kick, it has burrowed deeply into the bottom lines — and psyches — of restaurant owners.

A Harvard researcher estimated that a one-star increase in a restaurant’s average rating — the maximum is five stars — yields a 5 percent to 9 percent rise in sales.

Yelp’s supporters see it as a potent tool to spread information to consumers and opportunities to businesspeople.

Critics in the food industry say it squeezes them in an unappetizing double-fisted sandwich, elevating the views of uneducated eaters while penalizing businesses that don’t advertise on Yelp.

Two different Virginia restaurant owners said that they advertised for a few months on Yelp at $350 a month, and that after they stopped, they saw more negative reviews prominently placed on their Yelp pages.

“Six months later, the bad one keeps getting pushed to the top,” said Andrea DiCarlo, owner of La Bella in Ghent in Norfolk.

Yelp steadfastly denies manipulating reviews based on advertising status.

“There is zero relationship between buying Yelp advertising and which reviews are recommended” on its website, spokeswoman Kayleigh Winslow said. Michael Luca, the Harvard professor who linked revenues to good reviews, also found that Yelp’s “current implementation of the filtering algorithm does not treat advertisers’ reviews in a manner different to non-advertisers’ reviews.”

But Winslow acknowledged an advantage for Yelp advertisers: Ads from rivals disappear from their pages.

Gautham Vadakkepatt, an assistant marketing professor at George Mason University, also found that “online word of mouth” boosts sales: A 10 percent rating increase triggers an average 4 percent increase in sales, he said. But lingering credibility questions endanger Yelp’s future.

“I truly believe that if potential customers aren’t able to trust the reviews on Yelp, they’re not going to go to it,” he said.

Xerxes Nabong, a Yelp community director in the area, said the site is thriving as “a resource for people to find local businesses when the day is done.” Charles Thain, owner of Blue Seafood & Spirits, a 2-year-old restaurant with a five-star average, said at least one-quarter of patrons find Blue through Yelp.

“What Yelp and the other review sites have done is given a guy like me with shallow pockets an opportunity to compete in a market that has always been dominated by big advertising budgets,” Thain said.

And he hasn’t been hurt by not advertising:

“People think you’ve got to pay to play, but I’ve never given a nickel to Yelp.”

Yelp, launched in San Francisco in 2004, has 83 million reviews from 32 countries, Winslow said. Restaurants are among the most popular topics, at 19 percent, but reviews run from nail salons to urologists.

Seventy-nine percent of reviews are at least three stars, Winslow said, countering the image of Yelp “as a place for people to go and rant and complain about their experience.” But, like the sharp aftertaste of a biting salsa, the gripes are what stick with restaurant owners.

Yelp should do more, others say, such as requiring reviewers to reveal their full names.

“The anonymity of it almost makes you wonder,” said Jim Mayer, executive chef at One Fish Two Fish.

Yelp encourages reviewers to list their first names and last initials. But “it is the right of the consumer to choose to share their truthful experience anonymously, whether that be for privacy concerns or for fear of retribution,” Winslow said.

Some restaurants try to head off humiliation on Yelp with their own rating systems.

One Fish Two Fish, which averages four stars and does not advertise on Yelp, hands out comment cards with checks.

“If they’re upset about something, we can correct it while they’re still here,” Mayer said. At La Bella, DiCarlo plans to launch a similar system on tablets.

But the main way to “beat it,” DiCarlo said, is “to touch all the tables. Stop hiding in the kitchen, and make sure you communicate with your customers.”