Yelp Review Problems: Top 9 Reasons You Can't Always Trust The Review Site
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In a pinch, Yelp can be a great resource for restaurant recommendations. If, for example, you're looking for a Thai restaurant in North Myrtle Beach, there's no easier, faster way to find your answer. The same goes for a laundromat or nail salon if you're just moving to a new town.
But for bigger decisions, like where to have your 30th anniversary dinner, Yelp may not be the best pick, for a whole host of reasons. If you need proof, you might want to take a peek at the top-rated restaurants on Yelp's Manhattan homepage. One of the five, Per Se, is a universally-admired restaurant with four stars from the New York Times and three stars from the Michelin's Red Guide. It's ranked number four. Number one is a Chinatown food stand called "Tofu Guy," and number three is a bakery called "New Kam Hing Coffee Shop." Given that we at HuffPost Food have never tasted said Guy's bean curd, we won't knock it too hard -- but better than Le Bernardin?
With that befuddling winner's chart in mind, here are nine real reasons you should not always trust Yelp reviews:
Yelp Calls Lying "Personal Opinion"
A blog post on the SFWeekly website this week brought <a href="http://blogs.sfweekly.com/foodie/2011/09/yelp_lying_about_working_for_s.php" target="_hplink">a troubling Yelp-related incident</a> to light. A Yelper claimed, falsely, to be a writer for SFWeekly in a restaurant review. <em>SF Weekly</em>'s Food editor caught the lie and contacted the reviewer; she admitted that she actually wrote for <em>SF Weekly Voice</em>, and said she'd ask Yelp to change the review. But the website refused to amend the review -- a representative told SF Weekly that the lie in question was "personal opinion."
Yelp Is Known To Be An Outlet For Shilling
So many restaurateurs and publicists post glowing reviews of their own restaurants that Eater has a whole column dedicated to <a href="http://ny.eater.com/tags/adventures-in-shilling" target="_hplink">sniffing out shilly reviews</a>.
Yelpers Are Totally Anonymous
People do all sorts of weird things when they know they're unidentifiable -- which can throw off the average on sites like Yelp, which rely on the forthrightness and honesty of strangers.
Yelpers Can Rate Restaurants They Haven't Visited
Because of said anonymity, there's not even any guarantee that a Yelper has visited the restaurant they're reviewing. One infamous case of this sort of fraud took place in Graham Elliott's <a href="http://www.grahamwich.com/" target="_hplink">Grahamwich</a> restaurant in Chicago -- one Yelper gave it <a href="http://eater.com/archives/2010/09/01/graham-elliots-grahamwich-gets-negative-yelp-review.php" target="_hplink">a vicious one-star review before it even opened</a>.
Yelp Sorts Its Reviews In Mysterious Ways
Yelp has been <a href="http://techcrunch.com/2010/02/24/yelp-class-action-lawsuit/" target="_hplink">criticized in the past for the byzantine methods</a> it uses to sort reviews on a given restaurant's page. According to the site's FAQ, <blockquote>"Yelp's default sort order takes a number of factors into account and reflects our own attempt to present reviews in a meaningful order. For example, we'll favor reviews from your friends and the users you follow. The sort algorithm does not take into account whether the business is an advertiser or not."</blockquote> Thanks, Yelp. That clarifies literally nothing.
Yelp Bullies Restaurants
According to some reports, the "Yelp sort" has an insidious monetary element. Yelp salespeople have been known to<a href="http://www.eastbayexpress.com/ebx/yelp-and-the-business-of-extortion-20/Content?oid=1176635" target="_hplink"> call restaurants offering to push bad reviews far down in the list</a>, if they'll agree to pay to advertise.
Yelp Doesn't Give Guidelines About Stars
There are no guidelines on Yelp for what different star ratings mean -- one person's five star experience could be a jaded gastronaut's three star. Yelp does release the distribution of stars actually given out -- and they're definitely slanted toward the positive.
Only A Tiny Minority Of Yelp Users Rate Restaurants
Many more people <a href="http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/05/12/why-yelp-works/#?wtoeid=growl1_r1_v5" target="_hplink">read Yelp than actually write reviews</a>. Most reviewers fall into two categories: people who review every restaurant they visit (see the next slide for more on the "Yelp Elite") and those who have an extreme reaction. People probably won't review a restaurant if they thought it was just OK -- but they are likely to review it if they have very good or very bad experiences, making it hard to trust any given review.
Restaurants Throw Special Parties For The "Yelp Elite"
If you're one of those people who writes a Yelp review of every nail salon and yakitori joint you visit, you can become part of the "<a href="http://www.yelp.com/elite" target="_hplink">Yelp Elite</a>." Once you're part of this creme-de-la-creme, you can get invited to <a href="http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/43344769/ns/business-local_business/t/yelps-elite-epicurean-force-totally-free-labor/" target="_hplink">special "Elite-only" parties that restaurants</a> throw to attract good reviews. Sounds nice, right? It may be, for the "Yelp Elite" -- but it's bad for the general public, because these events often translate into glowing, misleading reviews for the party-throwing restaurants.