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The Yelp Question

February 1, 2011

16 – The Notorious B.I.G. – Unbelievable – Ready to Die by SWVoltron

For a lot of people, the introduction of Yelp into the social-network foray was a welcomed addition to an already quite-deep roster of sites. But is it good? And pushing that question a step further…does Yelp actually work?

My answers to both of these questions is “no,” and I’m quite certain most chefs, critics, and restaurateurs would agree as well. Obviously, Yelp works successfully in terms of its essential function as a web destination for people to share opinions and ideas, mostly about food. However, there is one massive problem Yelp overlooked, and I really don’t know if they can fix it.

The issue?

It’s glaringly obvious to me (and some other people I’ve spoken to on the subject). The problem is, how the hell do I trust what I’m reading? How do I know that the person whose post I’m checking out has the slightest clue as to what they’re talking about? Explicitly in relation to food, how do I know they have a good palate? Has this person ever even worked in a restaurant? Do they ever cook on their own, or do they just go out to eat all the time? (Sorry, but not actually being able to cook renders your opinions on taste somewhat moot and ill-informed.) Are they a restaurant “scenester,” or do they actually care about food, cooking, and good taste? The problem is credibility…and frankly, unless it is someone you know personally, there is no way to determine if credence should be lent to what you’re reading. Basically, if you don’t know the person who wrote what you’re reading, every sentence should be taken with multiple grains of your favorite coarse, Kosher seasoning.

I’m not meaning for this to be some crusade against Yelp that will ultimately lead to the demise of the site. I know I could never bring that about, I don’t care to, and because of the way social networks are valued (in economic terms) it will likely never happen; but this is something, as I mentioned before, I’ve mused over a few times and spoken to a number of folks about.

I wrote in a previous post about how I spent a few months working for a restaurant start-up here in New York. My day-to-day was going into restaurants, talking to people who work there and getting info about the place. The most common question people asked me about our site was, “How does it compare to Yelp?” or “Is it like Yelp?” (In case you were wondering, it was/is not like Yelp at all). The biggest problem restaurant people have with Yelp is that it allows users to create ratings for their establishment. This is, without a doubt, somewhat of a serious issue for a restaurant owner, and again calls to mind the problem of credibility. How do you or I know that Michael S. from Orlando knows what he’s talking about in his crushing, one-star “review” of Motorino, an establishment that is in the “Final Four,” nationally, for best pizza in America. At the end of the day, this is someone else’s livelihood…it’s their American dream, and it’s horribly unfair that the ill-informed ideas of Joe Schmo could conceivably tank a restaurant.

A marg pie from Motorino...down the street from my apt, and my favorite pizza in Manhattan. (seriouseats.com)

I’m sure there are those who will argue about the nature of “the market” and make claims such as “that’s capitalism,” and I’m happy to disagree. That is, without a doubt, complete bullshit, because, as I pointed out, there’s no way to tell if Michael from Orlando actually has one iota of a clue about pizza, and going further, Neapolitan-style pies. What if Michael is just wrong?

Two concrete examples of what I’m talking about…yesterday, someone posted a thread on Yelp (which was picked up and later posted on Eater) pondering the question of why one would eat food from a street cart or food truck. Automatically, in just thinking this thought, the user, at least in my view, has completely obliterated their cred (not to mention they sound incredibly snobbish). Why do you eat street food? I think Jimmy Beard just rolled over in his grave…street food, first of all, is some of the cheapest and most-delicious eats one can find in New York City. There are a plethora of food trucks offering gourmet, restaurant-quality food at far cheaper prices, and in addition to that, the wait for your meal is generally minimal. For anyone who is slightly in-the-know, this is a very laughable query. Subsequently, all reviews and opinions written by this particular Yelper should be ignored…but don’t listen to me if you don’t want to.

Wafels & Dinges; a current favorite on my food truck circuit. On weekends, they park down the street from Marjorie's apartment...until 1:00 AM. (flickr.com)

Second example…in perusing the comments about Momofuku Ssam Bar the other day, I came across one pegged with two stars by Caroline L. of New York, NY. Caroline had a bad experience at Ssam Bar with her girlfriends while out on their annual holiday dinner. I don’t know Caroline and have no interest in ever meeting her, but she did make a peculiar comment in her review that leads me to question the rest of it. She and her friends ordered a short rib sandwich at Ssam Bar (David Chang’s riff on the McRib) and they were not pleased. This lead Caroline to draw the conclusion that if one cannot make a short rib sammy, one “shouldn’t be operating a restaurant.” Really, Caroline? Who do these people think they are!?!? Caroline’s claim is, definitively, outrageous.

The rib sandwich in question by Caroline...obviously, not her exact sandwich, but how could this be bad? (flickr.com)

Maybe this is a pointless post because I don’t have and can’t offer a solution, but I wanted to get this out there for philosophical purposes if nothing else. I think it’s an important thing to consider (if you’re at all into food or use Yelp), and I also think it raises a lot of questions about social networks in general. One of the more serious issues social networks confront is that of user credibility (if you don’t believe me, watch the movie Catfish) in regard to their opinions, and without implementing some sort of Wonderlic-type test, I really can’t see a way around that. I guess this boils down to an issue of intelligence and “food-IQ,” of which, all men are not created equal.

I’d love to hear what readers have to think about this, so please, share your thoughts and let’s get some discussion going!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 1, 2011 2:23 pm

    You raise some pretty interesting questions. When I first started blogging, I used Yelp religiously, but then I began to notice reviews that were obviously dishonest, exaggerated & most likely had ulterior motives. I stopped writing reviews on Yelp & just stuck to my blog, trying to be as honest as I could.

    Yelp is an extremely powerful tool & can often lead to boom or disaster for restaurants. I had really never thought of the rating system, but I don’t think that ratings should exist, the # of stars that a place has is way too valued by consumers, I’d prefer to see more in depth reviews without limiting a restaurant’s rating to 5 stars.

    • GutBusted permalink*
      February 1, 2011 2:34 pm

      Thanks for the feedback, EVEats! I really appreciate it and your patronage!

      We’re pretty much on the exact same page and line in regards to Yelp; it’s good to know I’m not alone in my dissidence!

      Best,
      Ryan

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