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Do you trust Yelp?

Before there was Yelp, there was Asking Your Buddy -- as in calling your buddy to say, "I'm headed to Vegas next week, so where should I go for steak?" I am going to Vegas next weekend for the annual boys trip honoring March Madness. But I didn't call anyone for steak advice. I went on Yelp, read some reviews, looked at some stars, and made a reservation on Open Table. This took all of five minutes. No phone calls. No advice from anyone I knew.

We trust these reviews and this new system of digital referrals implicitly. These are real reviews by people just like us -- we think. But do we trust them too much? About a dozen businesses across the country -- including a restaurant in Dupont Circle -- would say yes. They are suing Yelp, alleging, among other things, that the company offered to remove or relocate negative reviews if the business owners paid to advertise on the site. Yelp has strenuously denied these allegations.

Have you noticed that reviews that you post to Yelp sometimes disappear? Do you trust Yelp and other web sites like it? Do you trust word of mouth from people you have never met? Will you be in Vegas next weekend? If so, where are you going for steak? I'm headed to Delmonico. It better be good.

Come ahead with your observations and reactions on the accuracy and reliability of recommendations from strangers on sites such as Yelp...on the comment boards below.

By Michael S. Rosenwald  | March 22, 2010; 9:39 AM ET
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Yelp is good only to amuse yourself at the totally ignorant comments that get posted.

If you really want to know about DC dining, go to Chowhound or Don Rockwell.

Posted by: reiflame1 | March 19, 2010 9:43 PM | Report abuse

One of my good friends - after years of saving, market testing her community and building a rep as a wholesaler and caterer - opened a bakery cafe in her Northern California community about three years ago. She was (and is) really focused on providing both an excellent product and providing great customer service - she knows a business can't survive without those two tenets in place.

The first nine months or so were great - she received positive reviews in all the local publications, had excellent foot traffic since she'd waited for a spot to open up in a good location...and she plentiful reviews in Yelp - none below 4 star, and many 5 star. Considering how big Yelp is in NoCal, it was all very good for her business.

Then one day, all the reviews disappeared. When she contacted Yelp, they told her that that couldn't possibly have happened, and then launched into the sales spiel documented above, noting it might bring them back. She simply didn't have the exorbitant monthly fees, so she had to turn them down.

She then started getting tons of 1 and 2 star reviews. Most of them terse, some of them even flat out saying they had never been to her business, but they thought it looked bad as they drove by or had heard how bad it was from other people and were reviewing it negatively as a result. Those stayed, no matter how she pointed out the latter reviews were completely unfair to her business.

When this started happening, her business started to dwindle, no matter what she did. Even when her loyal and happy customer base started to try and post positive Yelp reviews, they disappeared in days, sometimes as little as hours (they said it was because obviously she had hired people to post good reviews). She had to close her storefront late last year and is wholesaling and catering again.

So do I trust Yelp? Hell no.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | March 22, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Trust Yelp? No!!... but i trust Yelpers that I can agree with. Has a reviewer already written a bunch of reviews of places I've been to? I can cross-reference their opinion. I don't give a crap about what some snooty food reviewer says, but if the guy that likes my favorite BBQ joint says some hidden steak shack is good, I'll be sure to check it out. Yelp, like any good tool, can be used poorly or used well. It's not the site's fault if you use it poorly any more than it is a hammer's fault for striking your thumb. There's a staggering amount of utility in the site once you learn how best to use it.

Posted by: retiredgamer | March 22, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

I trust Yelp.

I am now a Yelp Elite, but used the site for many years as I traveled across the US for work. The crowd-sourcing model is effective and has yet to steer me wrong.

I have also witnessed first hand in my community the battles businesses have waged on Yelp against Yelpers, their competitors and even their customers. Without exception, those businesses that did have problems with Yelp reviews were not good businesses to begin with.

For me these controversies ultimately come down to one thing: business owners who don't understand the new model for customer feedback that sites like Yelp, Qype and others present. The fallout from that fundamental ignorance results in businesses posting fake reviews, harassing actual Yelp users and, these days, filing lawsuits.

Call me old-fashioned, but if you're staking your success purely on Yelp reviews, you're probably not going to succeed as a business. If you run your business properly, have a good product, treat your customers well and don't act like a troll online, you will be successful...AND you will have good Yelp reviews.

Posted by: olsonchr | March 22, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

I don't trust it any more implicitly than anything else. I also read the positive and negative reviews if someone sends me a place's reviews on it and decide if the specific negative stuff mentioned matters to me or not. ("Horrible place" is probably just someone being spiteful; "the food was bland and the wait staff were inattentive -- we waited 45 minutes to even get an offer to refill our drinks!" is more likely to deter me.)

If Yelp says somewhere is awful and a friend says somewhere is awesome (and yes, I do still ask my foodie friends for recs since I know how their tastes align with mine), I'm significantly more inclined to believe the friend.

Posted by: | March 22, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

For advice on Vegas, check out

That way you're only getting the opinion of one or two people. ;-)

Posted by: chunche | March 22, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

"Do you trust word of mouth from people you have never met?"

What an odd question. How many people have ever met Tom Sietsema (food critic for WaPo)? Frank Bruni (food critic for the NY Times)? Jonathan Gold (food critic for LA Weekly)? Surely only a tiny fraction of the millions of total subscribers and readers of these publications have ever met these critics ... and yet we trust their opinions anyway.

Besides, in my experience, if a restaurant is well-reviewed in a newspaper, it is likely to be well-reviewed on Yelp and other crowdsourced sites, and vice versa. So is there really much of a difference? I tend to prefer the crowdsourced reviews because their scores are generated from dozens or hundreds of experiences during different time periods, ordering different foods, and returning multiple times, which is not something that many (any?) newspaper critics can claim to achieve.

Posted by: scooterj2003 | March 22, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

What RetiredGamer said.

Take 10 minutes, rather than 5 minutes, and check out the credibility of a reviewer or three, particularly if they have rated a place very highly or very poorly. The middle's less interesting.

Posted by: NickPayne | March 22, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Like any decision you make in life, use common sense. We all have different tastes, so you can't expect one person's opinion to translate equally to your wants and needs. As an active Yelper for around a year, I try to be as descriptive as I can WHY I like a certain establishment. If the place is so-so, I won't give as much detail, but I try to give facts to go with my opinion. For anything I look up on Yelp, I take in all of the reviews and decide to give it a shot. I also take into account who wrote the reviews because I've come to know a lot of Yelpers and trust their judgment. If it's good...great. If it's bad, then I can add to the negative reviews as well. It's just the same as if you walk in off the street to try a place, or even if you follow a friend's advice or a food critic. The main thing I look for in reviews is WHY was the place reviewed that way, not just how high or low it's rated.

Posted by: olyella | March 22, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

Yes I trust Yelp very much... it's the Washington Post story lab that I DON'T trust.

Posted by: semoregood | March 22, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

But what makes a Tom Sietsema more qualified to review a place than a Michael H or an Alicia G? Is this palate so much more refined? Is his knowledge so much more vast? Is he inherently a better judge of authenticity?

No, he just happened to work for the Post and get hired when there was an opening for a food writer.

A lot of people like to say that the beauty of a newspaper food critic is knowing their tastes. But this argument holds no water. On Yelp, you can easily know people's tastes if you read their reviews regularly. Yelp allows for following and friendship-building, so that you're not simply sheep following anonymous reviews.

Longtime, elite users of Yelp know that you can't just trust a simple aggregated star level. You have to look at the reviews of your friends, or look at the substance of the reviews for helpful tidbits of information... and it's easy to do. I would assume that any intelligent readers of Tom Sietsema would do their own research before visiting a restaurant as well - instead of simply seeing two stars and determining it must be great.

And if we're going to attack Yelp, let's at least be accurate. A lot of yelpers meet regularly in person, at official Yelp events and at unofficial gatherings. It's not trusting the reviews of "people you've never met," although that can sometimes be the case. But don't hoards of people now meet their spouses online too? How do you trust someone you've never met? This whole apprehension is so last century. Yet I bet many turn to Yelp for advice when googling an establishment, since it's almost always one of the top hits to show up. It's more than just finding out what's hot or not. It's about finding out which dish to order at which particular time of day. It's finding out about the bartender that has an awesome knack for serving up drinks to your exact liking.

It seems to me that people who are against Yelping are the same as those against the notion of citizen journalism. It assumes the masses are dumb and that everyone follows the lowest common denominator, and that "trained" journalists/critics are the only anointed gatekeeping sources good at staying above the crowd. It is interesting that somehow, our society's respected information conduits are defending the notion that less information is better. The assumption that your readers are so dunce-headed that they can't distinguish good information from bad information is insulting.

Any person with half a brain who is willing to look up a place and browse through reviews will clearly be able to determine which reviews are useless and which reviews -- and reviewers -- are meaningful... and make an informed decision.

Posted by: livya | March 22, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

To address the claims of suppressed reviews, I believe Yelp's claims that the only reason reviews disappear is that the reviewer is not an active Yelper and this is intended solely to remove spam. Most Yelpers are familiar with spam patterns, where a restauranteur will use multiple email accounts to post 5 star reviews all on the same day. Yelp indicated that this mechanism is intended to remove less-than-trustworthy reviews and I believe it.

Now Sietsema, on the other hand....

...There I have serious trust issues.

Posted by: pizzymcgith | March 22, 2010 1:03 PM | Report abuse

To speak on the practice of Yelp, Inc. removing the reviews of Yelpers if a business does not comply with their marketing blackmail, I can say that there just might be some shady dealings behind the scenes. However, that is still a separate issue from the trustworthiness of the reviews themselves. There are a lot of spam reviews, but those are easily identifiable to anyone that can construct a simple sentence. For those that don't know, a quick rundown of Yelp: Join, review, peek at the Talk threads, attend an event or two, make friends, build up a base of people whose tastes are similar to your own, follow their reviews, talk to them at events about different restaurants they've sampled, learn whose judgment to trust and whose to take a chance on, become Elite, enjoy Yelp. If you follow those steps, you will learn exactly how to make your decisions via Yelp and what to trust and what not to trust.

Posted by: olyella | March 22, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Remember the Reagan quote, 'Trust but verify'? Why would anyone confer implicit trust to any open website? These are probably the same folks who think Wikipedia is the 'omni'-source of accurate reference too. (rolls eyes)

For most Yelp users, they probably just have a cursory viewing of the reviews and then decide whether they trust the poster enough to accept the assessment. For those folks, they may not readily realize that the 'elite' posters or individuals with many review credits may offer more credibility than the ones with less than a dozen reviews. Individual reviews vary in breadth and scope of assessment, but as an aggregate, they tend to be an accurate measure of the establishment.

Additionally, those local Yelp reviewers tend to meet up at local events and that helps to put a physical face to a yelp id and builds more credibility.

Posted by: SpecTP | March 22, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

Ha. This story is just recycled hearsay that only wastes valuable print space. Since most reviewers can write better than this guy, I would have to side with Yelp.

Posted by: Mikeymutual | March 22, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that Mr. Rosenwald created an account on Yelp! for the sole purpose of starting a talk thread soliciting negative comments from yelpers. Needless to say, no one was available for comment.

Posted by: OptiF | March 23, 2010 7:17 AM | Report abuse

This is just the beginning. Posting an anonymous review will one day day not be that easy to do. The majority of these posts are not fair and not true. One poster says he would eat at a hidden steak shack that has a great review. Well, the owner of this horrible steak place just wrote a nice review about his own place making believe he was a customer. And that same owner just wrote a bad review about the great steak place down the street saying how awful it was.
So you can see it just doesn't work.
A great business that depends on its online presence can really get hurt from this. Anyone at any time can destroy them. A disgruntled employee can write a review. Customers can lie. It's unbelievable how much damage can happen.
It is almost impossible to have a review removed. They say for the owner to post their own reply to the reviews and explain. Your hands are tied, adding comments will only make the matter worse. This will scare even more potential customers away.
Something really needs to be done about this. People think this is a joke. There are businesses out there that work hard and go out of their way to be the best and don't need these unlawful pranks.
If someone would like to review a business they should have to be identified with proper credentials and must offer some way of being contacted about their review.
This is not a game. This is honest people's livelihood.

Posted by: george61 | March 29, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

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