By Philip Walzer
For many local restaurants, summer brings a boost in customers, and Yelp reviews:
My steak was juicy.
My steak was too small.
The waitress knew the gluten-free options right away.
The waiter took too long to bring bread.
Yelp, which reports 162 million unique monthly users, illustrates the rise of online review sites and the digital transformation of private citizens into public personalities. Like a hot sauce with a lingering kick, it has burrowed deeply into the bottom lines, and psyches, of restaurant owners.
A Harvard researcher estimated that a one-star increase in a restaurant’s average rating, the maximum is five stars, yields a 5 percent to 9 percent rise in sales.
Yelp’s supporters see it as a potent tool to spread information to consumers and opportunities to businesspeople.
Critics in the food industry say it squeezes them in an unappetizing double-fisted sandwich, elevating the views of uneducated eaters while penalizing businesses that don’t advertise on Yelp.
“I have six years of culinary training, and all of a sudden my livelihood is left up to a person who watched two episodes of ‘Chopped’ and thinks ratatouille is a cute little cartoon,” groused Jeff Brown, owner of Cotton Southern Bistro, which has two locations, both with three stars.
Brown and Andrea DiCarlo, who owns La Bella in Ghent in Norfolk, which has a 3.5-star average, said they advertised for a few months on Yelp at $350 a month. After they stopped, they saw more negative reviews prominently placed on their Yelp pages.
“Six months later, the bad one keeps getting pushed to the top,” DiCarlo said.
Yelp steadfastly denies manipulating reviews based on advertising status.
“There is zero relationship between buying Yelp advertising and which reviews are recommended” on its website, spokeswoman Kayleigh Winslow said. Michael Luca, the Harvard professor who linked revenues to good reviews, also found that Yelp’s “current implementation of the filtering algorithm does not treat advertisers’ reviews in a manner different to non-advertisers’ reviews.”