I’ve written one Yelp review in my lifetime.
And, that’s been after being an on-and-off restaurant blogger since 2006. I have never been particularly compelled to write restaurant reviews on Yelp despite avidly using the platform to cull information and read others’ reviews.
Truthfully, I find it hard to criticize others’ livelihood so publically, often with such vitriol, in a restaurant industry where it’s already hard to survive past the first year. I’ve witnessed my uncle, who once owned a very good Thai restaurant in Cary, toil night after night, spending hours away from his family to keep his small business afloat. Knowing that one or two bad Yelp reviews, and maybe a star loss on its five-star system, could have had potentially damaging ramifications on the revenue in his business—well, it’s frankly heartbreaking.
I’ll often read Yelp restaurant reviews with a healthy dose of cynicism regarding its users and their level of true expertise. I’ll read the one-star scathing review and sometime balk, often while evaluating the person’s miniscule headshot, and think derisive thoughts like “I bet this person has never even cooked a day is his life” as he grumbles about his undercooked steak or “this woman knows nothing about food” as she grouses about the soggy tempura shrimp in her Punk Rock sushi roll. Even worse yet, I’ll get annoyed that some Yelpers, guided by personal vendettas and the need for revenge, use the opportunity to complain about everything but the food offer readers nothing substantive, only to add a couple of condescending humblebrags about how they’ve actually traveled abroad and to say things like this dish comes nothing close to real Italian food.
I do write my own restaurant reviews on other sites, some personal and others not, but I’ve always tried to be fair and balanced and more nuanced—an aim that I don’t think all Yelpers particularly care about. I’ve always tried to underscore all the good elements of a restaurant before criticizing the bad. And that’s not particularly difficult when you’re fueled by your own hedonistic pursuit of good food; you badly want the local eatery down the road to be good and to succeed, but sometimes it just doesn’t deliver the goods–goods that you do pay good money for.
The reality is that I’m probably no more different and no more special than your average Yelp reviewer, but I like to delude myself into thinking that I am. I shame myself into asking self-reflective questions like “what makes me so special?” and “why should anyone think what I write is important and meaningful?” I like to think I that I maintain some semblance of integrity when I write, a code of ethics that no one else, perhaps other than me, recognizes or adheres to. And perhaps, that is what keeps me from posting my own stuff on Yelp—shame ultimately from lack of experience in the industry or formal culinary training and education and an acute aversion to vulnerability and scrutiny.
My credentials only extend to: having eaten a lifetime of authentic Chinese food compliments of Mom, being an unabashed fan girl of Anthony Bourdain, a serial subscriber of publications like Lucky Peach and Gastronomica, a devoted follower of blogs from Eater and SeriousEats, a prolific reader of Chowhound, a devout devotee of Jonathan Gold and an avid viewer of Top Chef. I cook meals every day from scratch to learn and am a part-time baker on the weekends. So, really nothing that substantive. I am nothing more than a good old-fashioned bon vivant, albeit one with some modicum of restraint when it comes to self-aggrandizing my talents.
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But, beyond the average user posting reviews on Yelp, I remain skeptical about the undisclosed algorithm that the site uses. Yelp has not been immune to criticism in its history and has faced several lawsuits from small businesses accusing the San Francisco-based company of extortion via strong-arming them to buy advertising in exchange for shrouding negative reviews and boosting rankings by elevating positive reviews (see also the Yelp Sucks site for discussion amongst small business owners). The accusations have largely been disproven in the court of law, though I still have my own reservations about Yelp’s business practices in my analysis of how local restaurants’ reviews are handled and their respective rankings in the area.
Though negative reviews can be produce devastating effects on a local restaurant, conversely, positive and glowing reviews can help boost a business’s bottom line (see the interesting Harvard study that found that a one-star rating increase can lead to a 5 to 9 percent increase in revenue). I remain skittish about writing my own reviews on Yelp, but I must confess that I read a lot of reviews from others for informational reasons and, really, also my bemusement. And, that’s fine for me right now. I’ll happily remain on the Yelp sidelines as a benchwarmer and a happily-fed one at that.