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Everyone’s a critic

Yelp and other online sites and their cadre of amateurs have sent nervous ripples through the restaurant world

Grover Taylor, owner of Eat at Jumbo’s, in Somerville, was solicited by Yelp and got more critical reviews online when he declined to join. Grover Taylor, owner of Eat at Jumbo’s, in Somerville, was solicited by Yelp and got more critical reviews online when he declined to join. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Ike DeLorenzo
Globe Correspondent / June 2, 2010

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Restaurant dining has new bookends. The experience often begins and ends with the Web. Before you go out, you find a good place to eat; after you dine, you post a review. Millions of diners are now civilian critics, letting Chowhound, Yelp, Citysearch, and others in on their recent meals.

The domain of criticism was once the preserve of magazines and newspapers. This year has seen a flurry of activity for restaurant review sites, and for some new approaches to public critiques. Two big players — the biggest actually — want in on the action. Last week, Facebook began mailing door stickers to restaurants asking diners to “like’’ (there’s no “dislike’’) and comment about restaurants with Facebook pages. Google recently launched Google Place Pages, also with door stickers, which allow diners with smartphones to point the camera at a bar code and instantly display a comments page. All of this is enough to make restaurateurs worry about every single diner.

In the same way that travelers use various websites to find evaluations of hotels, diners are now turning to online food sites for advice on where to eat. As staggeringly fast as participation in food and restaurant websites has grown, so has the attention being paid amateur critics. Comments and ratings from any one diner may, of course, be biased or even false. Many Internet pundits believe in something called “the wisdom of the crowd.’’ The theory is that with many people commenting, you eventually get to the truth about a restaurant. As the public posts about the food, the service, the ambience, the bearnaise, the baguettes, a fuller and more accurate picture is supposed to evolve. The amateurs are not going away, which restaurateurs once might have hoped, and they are making chefs nervous.

Yelp, a social networking site where users post their own reviews, in March had 31 million unique visitors, up from 20 million a month last year. Since Yelp launched in 2004, 10 million reviews, mostly for restaurants, have been written. Similar sites also show strong growth. But because they hope to profit from what is submitted, these sites have goals that may be at odds with the restaurants, and even with the commenters. Yelp and its aspirants are in the business of making money by brokering information.

But there are suggestions — well, allegations even — that the natural ratings that should result are being manipulated. Kathleen Richards, a reporter for The East Bay Express in Oakland, Calif., wrote a widely circulated story last year about Yelp’s advertising and editorial practices. According to Richards, Yelp sales representatives would routinely cold-call Bay Area restaurants asking that they agree to a yearly contract to advertise on Yelp ($299 per month and up). Part of the pitch involved promises to remove bad Yelp reviews or move them off the main page. Richards also presented evidence that, in some cases, bad reviews had been written by the Yelp sales representatives themselves to force a sale. Failing to agree meant prominent bad reviews.

On its blog (and elsewhere), Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppleman forcefully denied these claims throughout the year, maintaining that Yelp only offered restaurants a chance to “feature’’ a review of its choice, and that any removals were done by “automatic filters’’ designed to detect fraudulent posts (from, say, friends, relatives, or known adversaries of the establishment). At the same time, more restaurants and other businesses, now from around the country, came forward claiming they had received similar solicitations from Yelp sales reps. To say the food blogs have been abuzz is an understatement.

The situation culminated in a dozen businesses, mostly restaurants, filing a federal class-action lawsuit against Yelp in February, a year after the story broke. The strongly worded suit accuses the company of “extortion.’’ Last month, in a bitter blog post, Stoppleman announced some changes. Restaurants can no longer select a “sponsored review’’ to appear prominently on the top of its Yelp page, and reviews suppressed for any reason are now available on a separate, though somewhat obscure, “filtered reviews’’ area of the page.

Grover Taylor, owner of Eat at Jumbo’s in Somerville, says his ratings dropped sharply last year when he declined to advertise on the site. “They called every week, telling me I needed to pay $500 a month to advertise. When I said no, a lot of one-star reviews started appearing on top. And then the phone would ring. Hi, this is Art from Yelp. We can make them disappear.’’ Taylor says the calls slowed and changed tone when he told the Yelp agent he was joining the class action suit. “Art stopped calling. A new guy from Yelp is calling now.’’

Individual restaurants now spend a lot of time handling existing reviews. “It basically eats many hours, on a weekly basis, going through Yelp and trying to address all the posts,’’ says Peter Rait, owner of Beacon Hill Bistro in Boston. Like many Boston restaurateurs, Rait has engaged an outside company to help his staff understand and react to Yelpers on the site itself. Rait thinks continuing the conversation with customers after they leave his restaurant can be a distraction. “I’m a little bit old school. We take care of each customer who comes in. We want to concentrate on quality while the diner is here, not somehow creating the perception of quality afterward.’’

But Erica Pilene, general manager of Finale Park Plaza, embraces the challenge. “We are constantly monitoring Yelp to see how we are doing. When we see a comment — say a server was being rude — I’ll take the server aside and say, we need to talk about this. It makes you more on top of your game than you ever have been. The feedback doesn’t go away, you can’t erase it, and everyone can see it.’’

Since Yelp and Citysearch are stand-alone services, it’s easier for people who want to game the system to sign up for many accounts with various e-mails, cast many votes, and create a suspiciously large number of positive (or negative) ratings. In these cases, the sites have conflicting motivations: more accounts make for impressive numbers, fake accounts create false ratings. Now that Yelp has been forced to abandon removing and shifting reviews, setting the bar for other sites, it also may be forced to be more aggressive in rooting out counterfeit opinions.

A partner, such as Google or Facebook, who has a better handle on account-holders’ identities, could help moderate reviewer vitriol and reduce duplicate reviews. For them, ad hoc and additional accounts are easy to detect (no Facebook friends, no messages in their gmail box), and so they may have an advantage. In 2009, Google made overtures to purchase Yelp for a reported $500 million. Google was ultimately spurned, perhaps now driving Yelp into the arms of Facebook. Recent partnerships between Yelp and Facebook, and coy statements by their CEOs, have industry insiders speculating about a purchase.

But why is Yelp so valuable? The reason is simple. Tweets and status posts about what you ate this afternoon have limited shelf life. Thoughtful posts on a restaurant, accompanied by a star-rating, have lasting worth, and aggregate value as others weigh in. Whichever company owns this data then owns the Web gateway many people turn to for information. And tying your tastes to your identity is the holy grail of Internet marketing. Leave a long review of an Italian restaurant and you are bound to get spam from an Italian food importer.

Neither 200-pound gorilla is standing still. Google and Facebook both are trying to get existing users to review restaurants. Google’s large restaurant sticker dwarfs other website stickers already on the door, and has its next-generation technology angle.

Sites like Yelp and Citysearch will be hard to defeat. Both have elevated those frequent contributors who are heavily “liked’’ (in the social networking sense) to a status akin to a traditional restaurant critic. Yelp calls them the “Elite Squad,’’ and Citysearch calls them “Dictators.’’ In both cases, they are presented as those users who are the authoritative tastemakers for a given city, their reviews are most prominently featured, and they are invited by the site to special events in their local cities. Only the online names of these users are known to the two companies, which is a lot of influence to delegate to people you know little about. The practice helps sites compete with traditional media by creating cheap (as in unpaid) experts.

Some restaurateurs and staff who do not have a favorable view of these sites spoke to me under condition of anonymity. “There’s sometimes a faceless nastiness on the sites,’’ says one. “People will sometimes attack chefs personally in a way that’s baseless and cruel.’’ A well-known restaurateur who refused to put a Google sticker on his door says, “They collect personal information and sell it. Why should I help? They can manufacture popularity with these sites, but it can go the other way.’’

Talented civilian reviewers who outgrow review sites are creating alternatives. Successful writers on Chowhound and eGullet (a popular bulletin board for food discussions), have gone on to create compelling food and restaurant blogs. In this area, there’s North Shore Dish (www.northshoredish.com), Eat Boutique (www.eatboutique.com), The Boston Foodie (www.thebostonfoodie.blogspot.com), Fork It Over, Boston (www.forkitoverboston.blogspot.com), and Table Critic (www.tablecritic.com).

Placid amid a storm of Internet recommendations, restaurateur Rait puts it this way: “They might tell me to make hamburgers for dinner, and we could sell a lot of hamburgers. But that’s not the experience we want to offer.’’

Still, his diners are newly accessorizing the table setting: fork on the left, knife on the right, iPhone top center. It’s chew and review, toast and post.

Ike DeLorenzo can be reached at ike@theideassection.com.