The Tyranny of the Yelp Reviewer – Thoughts on Responsibility

“Chef Michael Noble has had one of the most distinguished culinary careers ever for a chef. He is a multiple gold and bronze medal winner for Team Canada in several of the world culinary Olympics, former head chef of Catch (leading to the resto being awarded the Best New Restaurant award a…” – Dec 2010

Terry, not quite a renaissance man yet...

Terry, not quite a renaissance man yet…

Those were the words that began my journey into food reviews and blogging in the #YYC community. Since that time, I’ve co-founded a city-wide food event, became a bit of a fixture on Twitter and in person at certain restaurants, and have built a bit of a reputation as the go-to guy for restaurant choices. I’ve written well over 150+ restaurant and related market reviews, some serious and some especially whimsical (my TWO reviews of downtownfood are more than self-explanatory) and made friends at every stop ranging from the chefs (Darren Maclean of downtownfood, Duncan Ly of Yellow Door/Raw Bar, Dustin Schafer of Sky 360 etc), those who I call the established writers (Dan Clapson, Vincci Tsui, Linda Garson, etc) who make a living writing and working in the food industry, to the “next tier”, who are established in their own right but make their bread and butter in other industries. I’ve built a name that’s growing, and I’m honoured to know these people as they’re all fascinating, brilliant in their chosen arts, and passionate about their dedication to food and what I like to call #RealFood.

But while those words above started the journey, it was being awarded “Yelp Elite” status that gave me a voice on what I wrote about, and in some ways how to write even if I didn’t necessarily agree with the full structure. It’s a controversial review website, international in scope, with a structure and a power that in some places can make or break a business. As it’s the one I’ve been associated the longest, I’m going to start this week to give my friends and followers some understanding on the structure, and some thoughts on responsibilities that we all have to consider.

Yelp is basically a review website, with content written by the normal consumer (ideally). Literally 10s of thousands of reviews are written every day throughout the world, for the most part written by the average every day person, on virtually every known type of business from auto body shops to gourmet restaurants. Each reviewer is requested to give a star rating out of 5 (sorry, no 1/2 stars though Yelp really should allow that). The reviews are then analyzed by some special algorithm that tries to determine if it’s a valid review, a fake or even a deliberate attack. As a backup, there’s a small army of readers in San Francisco that reads the reviews themselves, and reviews can also be flagged by other Yelp reviewers. But there are 2 types of reviewers, the regular Yelp member and a smaller group designated as the Elite of which I am one.

Me in full Yelp Elite Mode in Yelp Sunglasses

Me in full Yelp Elite Mode in Yelp Sunglasses

What’s the difference between the two? Well, I’d like to say quality of writing and general integrity. A lot of the average Yelp writers tend to make a review about a few of their favorite places, or places that made an especial impression on them. Far more are what I call one-timers, that is they would write one or two reviews in all, all to help out their friend’s business, a popular local hangout, or in a lot of cases, to purposely attack to try to ruin a business with horrific stories, very often imaginary. A Yelp Elite will almost always write about their actual experience, especially engaged with their local community  and were selected for what appears in their writing and general personality to be honest overall (though occasionally incorrect). As such, especially as the Yelp Elite tend to be like a small percentage of the greater group, and highly sought for their opinions and reviews.

Now I will write a post on how the reviews are analyzed, how to write one and so on, but for now, I’m going to deal with one thing… what I like to call the Tyranny of the Yelper. Yelp, for better or worse, can seriously help or hurt certain businesses. In really depends on the nature of the business I find, but there have been actual published studies that back this up. As such, there have been offers by businesses to solicit a positive Yelp review from an Elite. Now this isn’t as prevalent in Canada as it is in the US, but there it is for all to see. The Yelpers, through social media, have an unprecedented amount of clout that otherwise didn’t exist 10 years ago. Bad word of mouth can always hurt a business, but through Yelp, it’s magnified a thousand fold in many instances.

Former food bloggers, the Calgary Foodies, were at one time the leading food blog in Calgary. But parenthood has superseded that passion understandably, and their site has since been shuttered. But I had contributed occasionally to their blog, including the review above about NoTAble’s Sunday Brunch, right up to a somewhat negative review I wrote about the last days of Mother Tucker’s in Calgary. It was never published, either on the Calgary Foodies’ site, or on my own.

When it was rejected, I looked at it myself, and then had a few friends’ read it as well. It wasn’t really a horrific review, just one where the age of the place was showing, and that for the very last Sunday Brunch sitting, it was pretty much without hoopla and protocol which was a bit saddening to see after such a long successful run. I never did ask Nolan, one of the foodies why it was never posted, but not too long after, he wrote a post himself about something he had learned himself, that just because you have a voice that people follow, it doesn’t mean it’s a voice that can be used as a hammer. A light flickered on in my head when I read that, and while my review wasn’t one that was slamming a hammer onto a business, it was one that was still negative in tone.

The Yelp Elite, and reviewers in general, have a voice that can do genuine harm to genuine people. A review about a bad experience in a restaurant could be the difference between a mom and pop shop being able to make the rent or shutter the doors. As my fellow blogger and friend, Wanda or @momwhoneedswine likes to state, Everyone could have an off day, or a bad experience. I’ve had some so-so dishes at my favorite places, poor service at my mechanic and so on, but this is something that should be expressed there and then WHILE you’re having that experience to give that business a chance to correct a perceived wrong. Your steak was underdone? Ask them to re-fire it. You don’t think your barber did a good job with your cut. Ask them to touch it up. But do it WHILE you’re having that experience.

Here’s where responsibility comes into play. Too many of us Yelpers and reviewers stay silent about a bad experience, and then take it out brutally on the business in a review afterwards. Again, if honest, a bad experience is a bad experience and if honest, should be reported, but should be done with the knowledge of the potential impact. I’ve admittedly written some pretty bad reviews as well myself, but no one can state that I didn’t at least try to give the business a chance to correct the issue. If the business still went out of their way to be complete jerks, well, so be it. But I’d like to remind everyone that we Yelp reviewers have a power to actually hurt people in real terms. This is our city, and I do my best to support it as best I can. I’d like to challenge the reviewers who are writing something negative that:

1) is the city really better with the loss of this business? Did I try to give them a chance to make amends?

2) depending on the nature and size of the business, am I crushing someone’s dreams? Do I really want to be the cause of the destruction of this venture?

In the 80s, an obituary of a legendary Montreal food writer had stated that she, over the years, deliberately shelved many a review of restaurants because while the experience may have been poor in execution, she knew that to publish a poor review would bankrupt that mom and pop business. I never understood why until I became reasonably well-known in the YYC Food community. There are so many that are literally struggling day-to-day, but have proceeded anyways because it was their dream.  I ask, unless it was truly a horrific experience, hold off. Give them a little time. Try them again.

To my fellow Yelp reviewers, especially the Elite, and to reviewers of YYC in general, I know many of you already keep this in mind. But there are so so many of us that don’t.

Next week, I’ll explain the Yelp review model, my thoughts on how it works and the pluses and minuses.