“Any news is good news and there is no such thing as bad press.”
If you’re unfamiliar, Yelp.com is a darn useful web directory service that can help you find a nearby business of any kind by proximity, address, phone number, and user review. TripAdvisor is similar, but provides a narrower focus from a traveler’s perspective.
Yelp also offers users the ability to rate a business between one star (poor) and five (exceptional) as well as to provide written comments.
In the restaurant industry, where written reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations are necessary evils, putting this power into such a concentrated—and anonymous—form has literally life-changing consequences.
Yelp has a filter that suppresses a small portion of reviews it analyzes as suspicious, but it can be circumvented with enough desire. The Internet is full of trolls, and someone with an agenda, even a direct competitor, can use it to draw blood.
'I used to care a lot'
I asked Kellermann, a vocal and visible chef-owner in the area whose own Elements Café was established before sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor, if web reviews affect his business.
“As an individual, I used to care a lot,” Kellermann told me in an e-mail. “But about a year to a year-and-a-half ago, I had a run-in with a customer that wasn’t even mine over an online review, and decided to not care anymore.
“If a customer doesn’t respect me enough to tell my server or myself that there is/was a problem, I don’t have any respect for them after they have written something online,” he wrote.
“Two years ago I would have fought tooth and nail. Today I would just ignore it.”
It's important to note that sites like Yelp weren’t designed to be used as weapons. Getting users to interact with your business online is a big piece of what drives it, and most content isn’t malicious.
But even as Internet commenting has become more sophisticated, sites must monitor closely their content or risk losing credibility. Yelp says its filtering services are “not a perfect system,” and that legitimate reviews can be lost.
Shouldn't we be able by now to determine whether a review is legitimate or trolling?
Negativity affects the bottom line
Until we can answer that question, the stakes have risen noticeably. Petty grievances and personal vendettas aired in the cloak of Internet anonymity might have all the lasting importance of a schoolyard rock fight, but in the grand scheme of things, small complaints can cost businesses big bucks.
According to a study conducted by two Berkeley economists, a simple half-star improvement on Yelp makes it 30-49 percent more likely that a restaurant will sell out its evening seats. In an industry where failure is guaranteed within three years for over 50% of restaurants, you’d better believe hitting capacity on a nightly basis is the difference between sinking and swiming.
When petty complaints hit you in the pocketbook, suddenly that schoolyard rock fight becomes a nuclear war. Recently, a Virginia woman was hit with a $750,000 SLAPP suit and ordered to alter a negative Yelp review of a contractor when her criticism proved false.
But for business owners who don’t want to involve the courts or look the other way, there’s always the option of taking matters into their own hands.
'Yelp accused me of posting my own articles'
When Alfredo Fischioni, chef-owner of That’s Amore in Collingswood, takes issue with TripAdvisor user complaints, he’ll reply in detail, often tongue-in-cheek, and with vigor. And he detests Yelp.
“Yelp accused me of posting my own articles,” he said. “To me it seems to be a bunch of unemployed people using Yelp. I never read them.”
Although he denies inventing user reviews of his restaurant, Fischioni does acknowledge some bitterness from the accusations. His name, or some form of it, also appears in a number of angry comments on Collingswood Patch, including on my review of his restaurant.
Fischioni also denies that he wrote these remarks, and said he can’t imagine why someone would pose as him online. He did not, however, deny responding to users’ complaints on TripAdvisor. These he wrote because he felt the need to defend himself and the reputation of his business.
It is worthwhile, however, to note that Chef Fischioni’s own review of his restaurant is the sole entry to have been removed from the Yelp page for That’s Amore. Another 67 reviews of his restaurant have been filtered by the system (i.e., tagged as “suspicious”); the site has allowed 22 to stand.
That’s a ratio noticeably skewed in the Collingswood restaurant scene, where most Yelp reviews exceed the number of those filtered (the lone exception is Little Louie’s BBQ, which has 21 reviews on Yelp versus 54 filtered).
In addition, That’s Amore reviews on TripAdvisor have skyrocketed since the virtual dustup between Fischioni and his detractors, with 13 positive reviews coming in less than a week after the negative posts. By comparison, it took 14 months for That’s Amore to receive 105 total reviews on the site. That’s an increase of 642%.
Does this mean something fishy is happening; that someone is planting artificial reviews to counterbalance the negativity?
Not necessarily. Yelp’s filtration system is flawed, and there’s nothing necessarily bizarre about community members jumping into the fray to defend a local business (or its owner) when the integrity of either is questioned. In my time at Patch, I’ve written exactly two negative articles reflecting poor experiences, and both were met with such backlash that the comment feeds had to be shut down. That speaks volumes.
But as Kellermann said, “Any news is good news and there is no such thing as bad press.”