If you don’t have an Internet connection, don’t go to restaurants or have been hiding underneath a rock, you might not be aware of Yelp. Yelp is similar to Chowhound or Zagat in that it primarily contains reviews of restaurants written by consumers, and thus aims to provide potential customers with feedback from people similar to themselves.
The people who post restaurant evaluations on Yelp are not “professional” reviewers. They are obviously anonymous, and receive nothing in the way of special treatment. They are private citizens who have theoretically reached into their pockets to pay for a meal, and then share their opinions with the public.
Unlike other websites based on consumer reviews, Yelp has generated an enormous amount of controversy. Howls of outrage are regularly heard from restaurant owners who receive negative reviews on the site. They accuse Yelp reviewers of lying, of being paid by their competitors to smear them and of posting reviews of restaurants they haven’t actually visited. Proprietors who have been criticized on Yelp also accuse competing restaurants of paying consumers to post positive reviews, thus orchestrating a false public relations campaign.
This last accusation is likely true. As a writer, I have seen ads on freelance job sites offering to compensate people for posting anonymous reviews of restaurants. It’s also true that there’s no surefire way to verify whether someone has actually visited a restaurant or not—honor systems are the easiest situations to abuse. The outrage against Yelp has now spilled over into the legal system, with class action suits filed against them for extortion (dismissed) and defamation (mixed results).
No one likes to be criticized. Amid all the accusations of unfair treatment by restaurant owners, however, I’ve never heard a proprietor admit that there might actually be something wrong with their establishment. If consumers post dozens of negative reviews about a restaurant, it’s possible that there might be some sort of grand conspiracy at work. It’s also possible that the restaurant is flawed, and the reviews just might be the owner’s last chance to rectify the problems and survive. The truth hurts.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to iconicspirits.net.