By Kaitlin Ohlinger, Foodable Contributor
Imagine a place where you could go to read honest, educated opinions about an establishment. A place where you could be regaled with details of real experiences that weren’t fluffed up by a fat public relations budget. A place where if you suddenly found yourself with an 18-hour layover in an unfamiliar city, you could call upon fellow food-lovers to guide you to an unexpected culinary paradise. Doesn’t this sound amazing? Certainly all things are possible on the internet, right?
This dreamy scenario could have been what Yelp’s founders, two former PayPal employees, had in mind when they started Yelp in 2004. But by 2010, Yelp had ballooned to approximately $30 million in revenues, yet also had several class-action lawsuits on its hands. Apparently this “real people, real reviews” site wasn’t getting rave reviews from those being reviewed. Now, five years later, restaurant owners regularly plot revenge against the site and the backlash has even soared all the way up to an episode of South Park.
The owners of Portland’s Burrasca sum up the Yelp experiment: “The original idea of Yelp was ostensibly not a bad one: a forum for public opinion that would help folks make informed choices about local restaurants. But I think that as Yelp has matured, it has become too often a platform for negativity and hatefulness.”
Is it possible Yelp is in the throes of death?
If anything can be agreed on, it’s that there is a modicum of good intention behind some of the fine tuned details of Yelp. The site introduced an algorithm, or “filter” system, to the site in order to weed out false or heavily influenced reviews. If we take the owners at their word, and believe that this is designed to help rather than harm a business, the logic is clear. Joe Schmo cannot sit at home and write a poor review of a place he has never set foot in. Jane Schmo cannot dine at a restaurant once, have a completely illogical argument with her server, and in turn rate the restaurant one star. The owner cannot offer free dinner to those that rate his restaurant five stars. These are all, according to Yelp, scenarios that the intangible algorithm is designed to eliminate. It should be a good thing. Unfortunately, businesses' displeasure over seeing their good, legitimate reviews fall victim to the algorithm is only one of Yelp’s public image problems.
The Entitled Mentality
What irks restaurant owners in particular the most is a perceived level of self-importance and entitlement that is pervasive in the Yelp bubble. Ricky Mollohan, owner of three restaurants in Columbia, South Carolina, has experienced all levels of Yelp frustration. For now, he seems mostly reconciled that despite his overall dislike, his businesses are not dramatically affected by Yelp positively or negatively.
“Like any online review site for restaurants, Yelp vastly overestimates the effect they think they have. I can't say if it helps or hurts. Overall it probably helps just by people reading your name, regardless of whether they read the review or not. Then they are more likely to say ‘I’ve heard of that place’ the next time they are in town or talking with friends about where to eat. That's the good.”
He goes on, “The bad is that it begs for people to say something grand. I mean honestly, if the ‘best meal of your life’ occurred at a chain restaurant, whether it's national or a local chain, then you are giving too much credit to one meal. And within this temptation to ‘out-do’ other Yelpers, there's the need for people who have never and could never operate a restaurant, to offer up how they would do this and that and how said restaurant's inability to do so makes them inferior. Yelp makes people turn what should be a fun, relaxing time into an event with discernible pressure. It creates an environment where people are invited and welcomed to turn others off. All over what are often times things that represented 1/20th of their actual dining experience. And let's be honest, if you go home thirty minutes after eating just to write about how your sweet tea ‘wasn't the same’ today, you are definitely at home as a Yelper. Cause outside of sites like Yelp, no one else is listening to your silly opinion.”
Burrasca’s Elizabeth and Paolo seem to agree. “From a restaurateur's perspective, Yelpers who complain online have done a disservice to themselves as well as to the business owner: rather than give any restaurant worth its salt a chance to make good on a mistake—real or perceived—and turn the dining experience around for them, they seem to prefer snarking in anonymity. This serves no purpose.”
To that end, simply being slowly discredited for actual validity may be contributing to Yelp’s extinction just as much as endless lawsuits. If the general public no longer sees Yelp’s content as “real”, they’ll simply stop clicking on it. Lack of traffic certainly spells death for any website.
Life After Yelp—An Alternative?
What would life after Yelp look like? Some might argue that another one would just pop up in its place, and they might not be far off. Mollohan theorizes, “I'm sure that one day someone will come up with the perfect online restaurant review site. But right now, and with the laws as they are, I can't see it being without some of the same problems as Yelp. The closest one I see to being ‘fair’ is Open Table. At least in their case you are not able to review a restaurant until after your reservation has been confirmed and completed. And they do monitor diners who no-show, or cancel last minute. They have some loyalty to basic dining etiquette. But again, the internet is so easy, that having an Open Table membership, let alone a Yelp account, hardly makes one a Michelin-star-diner.”
Looking forward, Elizabeth and Paolo take a clean-cut approach: “Personally, I don't know of anyone who consults it much anymore. As restaurateurs, we look at our reviews from time to time as a quality-control check. But as readers must do, we sift through what's legitimately helpful and what bears no relevance to us and what we're trying to do.”
The day may come that Yelp actually bears no relevance to what anyone is trying to do. That would be an interesting day.