A cozy restaurant and bar can be found around a street corner in Northern Liberties.
Decor is modest but quirky, full of warm woods and cartoon pigs with X’s for the eyes on the walls, light fixtures, and menus. A handwritten list on the board displays the beers on tap and the dish of the day: cabernet served in a mason jar for $ 3.
It is The blind pig, and Steven Brewer and his wife drove from the suburbs of Philadelphia to dine here on a sweltering August evening. Although it had only been open for about a month, he knew he had to try their Thanksgiving balls: fried turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing served with gravy and cranberry sauce.
Brewer, like two million others every day, used the popular customer review site Bark to help her decide where to have dinner that night. It’s the modern soapbox and megaphone, and anyone can jump in. While this can be a great resource for customers and business owners alike, visitors to Yelp should exercise caution because, like anything online, you can’t take everything that has been “Yelped.” for cash.
A week after Google made the news for the purchase of Zagat and two years after the failed buyout offer from Yelp, what does the local scene look like for the hugely popular online customer review site?
âOur goal: to connect people with great local businesses,â the site reads. And log in, they did. The number of Yelp users – nicknamed “Yelpers” – has skyrocketed since then. Artwork by Jeremy Stoppelman and Russel Simmons the site in July 2004. Just last month, Yelp reported 53 million unique visitors look to read reviews, write reviews, or socialize.
âIt really sucked me in,â said Brewer, 56, a Yelper daily with 379 reviews and the visitor to the suburb Blind Pig we met earlier. He started out as a passive reader, like 90% of visitors, according to Yelp manager Daniel Holloway.
Soon, Brewer’s cohesive writing of critiques and his social involvement caught the administration’s attention. They asked him to join the Yelp Elite Squad, a model group of the most experienced and active Yelpers.
43 percent of restaurant owners thought Yelp was the most damaging website for the restaurant industry – 2011 Tundra Specialties survey
While there is no shortage of competitors including Urbanspoon, MenuPages, and Citysearch, Yelp ranks first as the largest collection of reviews online. They recently passed the 20 million review mark and keep growing.
Nancy P., 24, Elite Yelper, like Brewer, primarily uses Yelp to find places to eat. However, for her, not all Yelpers are created equal. While she reads most reviews on one page, she takes Elite Yelpers and Yelpers more seriously with profile photos.
âYelpers definitely need a face on the name otherwise they’re too cowardly to back up their beliefs,â she said.
Experienced Yelpers know they automatically dismiss certain reviews. âSometimes someone gets really mad in a restaurant,â Brewer said. âThey go crazy, ranting about a restaurant because they had a bad experience. And then they don’t do anything anymore.
However, casual viewers may not be able to read between the lines, and such criticism can damage reputation and business. In a 2011 survey by national foodservice equipment and supplies distributor Tundra Specialties, 43% of restaurant owners thought Yelp was the most damaging website for the restaurant industry.
In an effort to combat spurious reviews, including positive reviews posted by business promoters, Yelp has implemented a review filtering system managed by proprietary algorithms.
The filter is not perfect, however. CEO Stoppelman admits some legitimate content is being sacrificed as fake reviews fall through the cracks.
“It’s unfortunate, but it’s what’s needed to maximize trustworthy content and deliver value to consumers and businesses,” wrote Stoppelman.
Some offended restaurateurs respond angrily to Yelpers, as 27-year-old Susan Graeser has experienced.
“Someone contacted me once about their restaurant – which I had given four stars to – and told me I didn’t know anything about food or pasta and said I should be shot,” Graeser said. “That, I was disgusted.”
Consumers and business owners would likely benefit from developing thick skin.
Tommy Up, 37, owner of PYT in Northern Liberties, described a recent conversation with his friend Han Chiang, owner of Han Dynasty in Olde City.
âOne day we’re eating there and he’s on the phone looking at Yelp. He starts to swear like, “That stupid customer!” Argh! ‘âSaid Up, raising his hands in mock anger. âThey are complaining about something like his hallway is cold. I’m like, ‘Dude, your restaurant is the best Chinese food I’ve ever had. Don’t continue Yelp, you’ll be driving yourself crazy. ‘ Yeah, I don’t need that stress.
On the other hand, restaurateurs like Jason Evenchik, 38, owner of Vintage Wine Bar in Market East and Time Restaurant in Center City, use Yelp to improve themselves.
âI will check if there are any valid criticisms or points that need to be addressed, related to the food or the service,â Evenchik said. Yelp’s complaints sparked a dialogue about a bartender Evenchik employed. âOnce I personally received a real complaint, it was the last straw. I take everything online with a grain of salt.
For Yelpers like Brewer and Nancy P., that’s the goal. They hope that customer opinions will reach business owners.
âIt’s almost like free marketing advice for them,â said Nancy P.
However, restaurateurs like Evenchik and Up agree that reviews on Yelp take precedence over other forms of feedback, like in-store complaints, phone calls, or emails.
âWhoever contacts us personally, we do our best to come back immediately,â said Up, who doesn’t check PYT’s Yelp page but focuses on their existing customer base.
âWe have developed a strong following of people who like our place and who don’t go to a lot of social review sites,â Up said. âThey actually do things. They are here, live in the city, have fun, and they don’t spend a lot of time wondering if the bread is stale in different restaurants. Not that our bread is.
What brings Yelpers out in the city are Yelp Elite Events, exclusive events where Elite Yelpers eat, drink and have fun while restaurant owners foot the bill.
âThey’re looking to grow their business and they understand that great Yelpers, if they write great reviews, can make an impact. So everyone understands that the restaurant is doing it for very selfish reasons, âBrewer said.
Described brewer an event this summer at the Continental in Old City. âStephen Starr really rolled out the red carpet. It makes you more inclined to visit his other restaurants because he did a great job for us.
However, the concept behind Yelp Elite events has sparked controversy.
âIt’s basically free food, so it gets a bit skewed,â said Ashley Primis, 31, food writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “These Yelp parties can be unfair and distort the view of the experience.”
Restaurant owners realize that a momentous event can generate a flurry of publicity.
âIt’s really good experiential marketing for the brand,â Up said. Yelp creates an event page separate from the restaurant page, so ideally Yelpers separate their opinions about the event from their opinions about the location. Elite events also end up helping Yelp as a business. Much like the âEliteâ badge next to a username indicating status, events are an incentive for the Yelp consumer base to grow and increase usage.
Zhongmin Wang of Northeastern University conducted a study on social review sites called “Anonymity, Social Image, and Competition for Volunteers: A Case Study of the Online Reviews Market. “He concluded that the reputation building aspect of Yelping has been integral to its success.
However, the field is constantly evolving. Primis compares the reaction to the The beginnings of Zagat Survey in 1979, the guide now owned by Google which compiles the ratings of guests from different cities.
âPeople are just going to have to adapt,â Primis said. “It forces people to be on guard all the time, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
Up, who has run PYT for two years, said he stopped reading Yelp after the first year.
âAs I went from someone who reads restaurants to someone who runs one, I realized that it was impossible to please everyone. But what you can do is make the people who love your home very happy. And at the same time, you’re going to alienate a bunch of people, âhe said. “And that’s good, because if you try to make everyone happy, you’re not going to make anyone really happy.”
Jade Vitug graduated from Temple University with a major in Psychology and a minor in Business. Originally from Guam, she recently moved to Philadelphia from Tokyo, Japan. She first became interested in Yelp because, as a new resident, she used the service often.