The chipper business review service invests in Kansas City
Over the past couple of years, the online review site Yelp.com has become one of the most popular ways to find information about local businesses. If you Google the name of a restaurant, you are likely to see the Yelp page appear very high in the results. While the site boasts reviews of everything from hair salons to dentists, restaurant posts make up nearly 30% of its content.
Yelp differs from many other online review sites in that it encourages transparency and interaction among its users. After signing up for the site, one can befriend other members, give compliments, make lists, post to the discussion forums and rate other reviews. So-called “yelpers” who post frequent, high-quality reviews are awarded “elite” status which gives them access to free monthly parties at local establishments. (Full disclosure: I am a casual user of the site and an elite member.)
A select number of larger cities have been assigned a “Community Manager”; a person who keeps the elite community enthused, arranges Yelp gatherings and acts as a liaison between the website and the user base. While Yelp has been around since 2005, Joi Brozek was just hired as Kansas City’s Community Manager in March of this year. A writer and former bar owner, Brozek came to Kansas City via New York City and Lawrence. I recently met with her and a visiting community manager from Detroit, Mariah Cherem, to discuss the ins and outs of Yelp.
Before Brozek came on board, local Yelpers dutifully wrote reviews and interacted in a silo for several years, and even set up some casual real-life meetups. In her short tenure in Kansas City, Brozek has found the makeup of the local Yelp community to be quite active and diverse. “One misperception is that all of our reviewers are really young, but they are totally not. In our community we have so many people that are over 40,” she said, adding, “I come from a writing background and some of these reviews are really well-written.”
A common complaint about Yelp and Internet reviews in general is the lack of accountability, and the high profile nature of reviews that are posted anonymously. While one can contribute anonymously to Yelp, only members who use their real first names can achieve elite status. Yelp elites must also use a genuine, identifiable photograph of themselves in their profile. “Having your photo up is a big thing,” said Brozek “we are all real people and that’s what we foster on the site.”
Yelp also uses an algorithm to sort and display user reviews in order to downplay reviews that may not be particularly useful and promote ones that are likely to be valuable. While the details of the algorithm are elusive, one can imagine that elite status and the number of “compliments” one receives could only benefit a particular post. In the same manner, users with one or two total reviews, no friends on the site and no profile picture are often filtered, and only displayed if a user chooses to see all filtered reviews.
Oddly vehement reviews are fairly common, and typically reflect a user’s single poor experience at a restaurant. “The chicken tasted like a frozen grilled chicken patty with some frozen mixed vegetables on the side.” reads a filtered review of Osteria El Centro. “This food was awful!! We only ate it because at this point we’d been at the restaurant for over 2 hours and wanted to LEAVE!!!! NEVER AGAIN! I would NOT RECOMMEND THIS RESTAURANT TO ANYONE!!!!” Earlier this year a local food blogger even developed a kind of tribute site for these kinds of reviews at a site called Barbaric Yelp.
While some may take issue with the very notion of filtering reviews, it does seem to cut down on the nonsense that proliferates elsewhere on the Web. The local Yelp community also carefully monitors and flags suspicious reviews, such as those that rate one business highly and all its direct competitors very low. “It does happen that occasionally a few legit reviews get filtered out but you can still read those reviews,” said Cherem, “a lot of times when you do read them you understand why the reviews have been filtered out.”
Encouraging real-life engagement in the form of elite parties also serves to keep reviewers on their toes. “I think the offline element adds additional accountability to the online component” said Cherem. “For instance ‘Joe W.’ is not going to write a total flame war of a review if he knows you’re going to be reading it and your other friends are reading it.”
However, Yelpers are certainly not professional food critics. Palates, writing skill and personality vary widely among its users. Pretty much any restaurant will have its share of detractors and advocates, some of whom are more reliable than others. For this reason, Yelp is not very popular among a certain sector of restaurateurs, as I recently discussed on the KC Free Press food blog. Certainly, Yelp carries more clout and visibility in cities like New York and Chicago and by and large Kansas City restaurant owners have been receptive to the local community of Yelpers. But owning a computer does not make one a food critic (believe me, I know).
For this reason, business owners can “claim” their pages and respond to reviewers in public or privately. While this service is free, some business owners choose to purchase additional advertising on the site which gives them access to special features such as video on their pages.
Earlier this year a number of businesses across the nation brought a class-action lawsuit against Yelp, claiming that company sales persons pressured them into advertising with the site in order to remove or downplay negative reviews. Whether this is a “special feature” of advertising with Yelp or not is for the courts to decide. Fortunately community managers don’t have to worry about that aspect of the job. “There’s a complete separation between community managers and ad sales, said Cherem. “Our job is just to let people know about all the free tools that they can use.”
Love it or hate it, the Yelp community is thriving in Kansas City, complete with its own set of power-users and trouble makers. Active diners and restaurant owners alike will want to check it out, pay attention and interact with the site, because these days, that is increasingly where the action is. And both sides of the reviewing equation would do well to always remember that real people with real emotions lie on the other side.