On the prowl for a good dinner in a Florida town we didn’t know well, I went on Yelp. Yelp is a social networking website that lets anyone review a business. One Italian restaurant looked promising, with mostly positive reviews and few grumbles. We went there, had a fine meal and told the chef-owner so. But on mentioning that we had seen the reviews on Yelp, a cloud crossed his face.
A few months earlier, he said, an online reviewer had complained that his restaurant had delivered poor service for a party of 20 on Valentine’s Day. Surprised, he checked that night’s seating and found that none of his tables had accommodated more than four people. He had been “Yelped.”
Whoever wrote that anonymous write- up was either a competitor, a personal enemy, a malicious crank or someone who had confused his restaurant with another. In olden times, unhappy customers would talk to him about their concerns. Now they jump into the cyber-ballroom of restaurant criticism, where amateur reviewers hold court before a global audience.
Such public review websites are also deeply corrupt. Professionals now hire themselves out to write fake raves for businesses. Some work out of India.
The whole crazy scene aggravates business owners. In San Francisco, a negative critique on Yelp sent the proprietor of a small bookshop off the deep end. Enraged by a review calling her shop “a TOTAL mess,” she retaliated (inappropriately) with angry and insulting messages. She uncovered the reviewer’s identity, then visited him at home on a Sunday morning. What ensued depends on whom you ask, but the conflict did make the evening TV news.
Once upon a time, the only influential critics worked for newspapers or magazines. They may have been incompetent, had personal agendas or had stumbled in on an especially bad day. But the paid reviewers had to obey certain journalistic standards. For example, a factual mistake would be followed by a published correction. If something in the review seemed unfair, the business owner could call the author or the editor or both and discuss the matter further.
The all-critics-are-equal cellphone apps and websites have turned reviewing into one big bathroom wall. The reviewers can’t be stopped, and they’re usually unidentified. You can wash nasty comments off a restroom stall, but you can’t cleanse cyberspace of anonymous ravings by folks who may not be honest or sane. And there are those who like to be snarky for snarky’s sake. Some business owners monitor these sites and respond to criticism, but what about the little guy who just goes about repairing shoes?
In the past, I’ve found some value in reading reviews purportedly written by the consuming masses. When buying a camera, computer or other electronics, I read the professional reviews, then the comments. The experts, so engaged with technology, don’t always speak to my interest in getting something to work without having to take a night course. I paid close attention to remarks about the quality of Company X’s customer service when the consumer needs help. Of course, one must read between the lines and try to discern whether complainers are wacky. And they could be working for Company Y.
Reports of the dishonesty behind many reviews have, frankly, turned me off these websites. The question of trust keeps reviewers at old media standbys — or respected websites —- enormously influential. And that’s how it should be. But for how long will the general public be able to distinguish between educated opinion and what appears on a website cleverly designed to look authoritative? Will it grow wise to the tricks? Businesses and consumers alike should worry. ©2011 The Providence Journal Co.