The Yelp Effect

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Although there was no shortage of food-related panels at the Interactive portion of South by Southwest (SXSWi) this year, none were as insightful or as incendiary as The Yelp Effect, a frank discussion on the effect that online reviews and criticisms have on the restaurant industry.

Led by Addie Broyles, food writer for the Austin-American Statesman and Jennie Chen, popular food blogger and prominent Yelper in the Austin food community, the interest level surpassed even the panel leaders' expectations and their small room in a far corner of the top floor at the Austin Convention Center quickly became packed to capacity with more than 150 attendees.

Difficult questions were raised at the panel, none of which were easily answered on the short hour that was allocated to the "core conversation" (SXSWi-speak for a "panel in the round," where the whole room is invited to advance and facilitate the discussion). But several key points were raised, points which the restaurant industry -- owners, chefs, managers, wait staff, bartenders or even hosts -- needs to start paying attention to. To quote Broyles, "Social media has made it to where restaurants can't just serve food; they need to have their ear to the ground."

Yelp and sites like it, such as B4-U-Eat in Houston or Urbanspoon and Citysearch on a national level, have caused a huge shakeup in the restaurant industry. In the past, customers with complaints were limited to two avenues: Speaking directly to the manager or filling out one of the often-old, often-stained comment cards that came with the check. There was no guarantee that either of these avenues would generate change or even be noticed. In fact, it was easy for a restaurant to brush off complaints and sweep them under a rug, never to be thought of again.

Today, for better or worse, customers have begun taking to the Internet in droves to discuss their dining experiences in sometimes elaborate and excruciating detail. An exponentially growing number of people prefer to use the Internet as their preferred method of communication with restaurants instead of addressing them directly (see the often dead-end avenues above) for two primary reasons: For some people, it can simply be a soapbox from which to preach, but for most it's a means of passive, non-confrontational communication and feedback that can't be covered up by a restaurant if it doesn't agree with the customer's assessment.

As Alison Cook recently taught us, sometimes even the simplest request can result in poor service or even being asked to leave the restaurant. "SteakGate" -- as it quickly came to be known on Twitter -- was an unfortunate yet perfect example of a restaurant refusing to take feedback in a courteous manner, and having social media backfire on them in the worst possible way. Soon after being kicked out of Jonathan's The Rub for having the audacity to send her overcooked steak back, Cook -- the food critic for the Houston Chronicle -- took to Twitter and Facebook to express her disappointment in the restaurant and in Jonathan Levine, the chef and owner who asked her to leave.

News of Cook's ousting spread like wildfire across various social media platforms until the situation was too big for Levine to ignore. But instead of reacting in a duly fitting manner, he took to old media -- a radio show with only a handful of listeners -- to express his side of the situation. A failure in every way.

Similarly, restaurant owners can no longer afford to ignore sites like Yelp, unfavorable and unpopular as some of them may currently be (see our recent post on the class-action lawsuit against Yelp from a California-based business). The fact of the matter is that more and more potential customers are paying attention to these sites, like it or not. People want to hear what other diners think of an establishment before they spend their hard-earned money there, and are increasingly turning not just to their friends and family for opinions, but to the Internet.

The biggest problem with sites like Yelp, however, is the trustworthiness of the reviews that are posted there. Not only do potential customers struggle with deciding which reviews to trust, but restaurant owners do as well. What's to say that the overwhelmingly negative review posted a few days ago by an "unhappy customer" wasn't actually posted by someone from a competing restaurant or a disgruntled former employee?

In the past, there was never a question of trusting a restaurant review that ran in a traditional media platform such as print. The traditional restaurant critic was a professional who was paid not only for his experience but also for his ethics and honesty. With online reviews, that level of trust has been largely stripped away. Just yesterday, Time ran a piece on the professional restaurant critic as an endangered species, and -- to a large extent -- that's true.

To try and combat the inherent untrustworthiness of something that's posted on the Internet by a complete stranger (remember AOL chatrooms? Yelp hasn't made much progress from that point, in terms of the emotional maturity of most of its users), some online communities have begun self-policing the reviews that are posted there. If a user is determined to be 100 percent negative all of the time, people will quickly begin shunning him and ignoring his reviews. Similarly, if a review looks to be a blatant plug or takedown, the community will report it to the Yelp community manager for removal.

And that's all well and good within a particular city's community. But what if that kind of user policing doesn't exist in, say, Boston or Chicago? Or, worse, what if someone unfamiliar with that local Yelp community -- whether a traveler to that town or someone just getting into this corner of the Internet -- just stumbles upon a few poor reviews and takes them as rote confirmation that a restaurant does, indeed, suck?

The saving grace of a site like Yelp is that -- at least in theory -- it allows restaurant owners to respond directly to negative reviews. And if restaurants aren't already doing this, they're failing in the new frontier of customer service. Whether anyone likes it or not, ignoring online feedback has become almost as big a faux pas as refusing to come and speak to a customer in person when they have an issue at the restaurant. There are two approaches that a restaurant can take when it comes to online reviews.

The first is proactive: For God's sake, build a website. Create a Facebook fan page. Create a Twitter account. Find your reviews on Yelp, Urbanspoon, LikeMe.net, B4-U-Eat and Citysearch. And then link to those reviews -- good or bad -- and those social media sites from your website. Make it easy on people who are searching for your restaurant to both find you and find your reviews. Respond to those reviews that are negative (where possible). Treat your customers well, but whatever you do, don't request that your patrons visit those sites and leave positive reviews after they've finished their meal. This proactive approach encourages transparency in all areas and shows potential customers that you're doing everything in your power to ensure they'll be respected, that their feedback is important to you and that they'll have a good dining experience.

The second is reactionary: Respond to the negative reviews that are already out there and take their messages to heart, even if those messages are sometimes couched in poorly constructed sentences, bad grammar and occasional vulgarity. As an owner or a chef, you may not agree with the general process behind online reviewing -- that people gulp down their dinner as quickly as possible and leap on the Internet to immediately start regurgitating their meal for all to see (and, frankly, neither does Eating Our Words, who thinks that a meal should be savored and properly digested, certainly never discussed while it's happening, and only then should words be written down). But that's a moot point by now.

The age of Yelp is upon us, and restaurant owners can no longer fight the rising tide of food bloggers, online amateur reviewers and people who live-Tweet every aspect of their meal. They can only observe, interact where appropriate and take it all in stride.

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