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Filters, Internet Trolls & Fake Reviews: Does Yelp Help or Hurt Business?

Opening day for The Station Pizzeria in 2012. They had already received several one star reviews on Yelp, although no one had been inside. Kent Betts, in the white coat, with his wife and daughter, Caylee Betts, who does the restaurant's marketing. (Photo courtesy of The Station Pizzeria)

More than a million businesses are reviewed every single day on Yelp. Some of them good, some bad and some ugly. Not that long ago, if your toast was burnt, you’d complain to the server, maybe send a letter or suck it up and say nothing. Now it’s easy to hide behind a computer screen while telling the world just how burnt your toast is and how angry that makes you feel.

Yelp can help and hurt businesses, but not all Yelpers think twice before posting a harsh one-star review. So this story intends to put some human faces on the businesses you’re reviewing.

Kent Betts has worked in the restaurant business for 40 years. When he and his daughter Caylee Betts opened The Station Pizzeria in Woodinville last year, they were shocked by their Yelp reviews.

“We actually got one star reviews before the doors even opened,” Caylee says. “People who had never been there before wrote reviews saying, ‘We tried to go and they were closed.’ So one star, or whatever.”

“Not only that, but they reviewed the crust of the pizza,” Kent added. “They said it was thick and soggy. The restaurant wasn’t even open yet. So that’s the kind of inaccuracies that can happen – you have no control over.”

Yelp did take down those false reviews, but Caylee says harsh reviews are tough on young businesses that need the word of mouth. Even restaurant critics don’t review a brand new restaurant.

“Young businesses need a good amount of time to work out a lot of kinks,” Caylee says. “If you’re a consumer who has no experience in the restaurant industry whatsoever and you’re just going to go in and expect things to be perfect on the first day you are, sorry to say, ignorant. That’s one of the hard thing about Yelpers being able to talk about things without necessarily having the background or the experience or the knowledge.”

One of the main complaints Yelp gets is about its filter system. Not every review submitted shows up prominently on the website, and elite Yelpers are given more weight.

Lisa Carvey bought The Braeburn Restaurant on Whidbey Island in 2010. She says she hasn’t seen some of the positive reviews customers claimed to have written.

“A lot of the really great ones never even showed up, which was a huge problem because they all got filtered.”

Yelp’s head of corporate communication, Vince Sollito, explained the system.

“Virtually all user generated review websites and review services, we employ an algorithm to help us protect consumers from fake and malicious or shill content. We found businesses trying to write fake reviews of their own business or buying reviews from other people or getting content farms in India to submit tons and tons of reviews. We have to do a very hard job of weeding through those and making sure that we protect consumers from not being mislead by these business owners that are unscrupulous.”

But since her best reviews were filtered out, Lisa says Yelp did negatively affect her business.

“I’ve had people specifically say to me, ‘We almost didn’t come in because we read your Yelp reviews. I’m so glad that we did because it was great.’ But I have to imagine if there are people who are directly telling me, as the owner, that they almost didn’t come in because of Yelp, that there are that many more people that just didn’t altogether come in because of Yelp.”

Vince acknowledges the power of the Yelp review.

“There was a study by UC Berkeley that indicated that a half star increase on Yelp could predict that your restaurant would be full by about 25 percent or more. There was a Harvard Business Study that indicated that a one star increase on Yelp could increase a restaurant’s revenues by 9 percent.”

A Thai restaurant in San Francisco, convinced that its good reviews were being filtered out because they didn’t buy ads on Yelp, hung a ‘Boycott Yelp’ sign in their window. None of the restaurateurs in this story would go that far, especially since The Station enjoys a four star rating, and the Braeburn, 3 and a half. But Kent, who no longer looks at Yelp, still mostly opposes the concept.

“Typically, if I’m not happy with a dinner someplace, I just don’t go back. I just vote with my dollars. I’m not going to take that opportunity to go bash somebody. I know how hard it is to make a living in this business.”

Vince says people are surprised to hear that 80 percent of reviews are positive, three stars or more. But those negative comments tend to stand out the most, and sometimes hurt morale.

“I really have to try and remind myself to let them go,” Lisa says. “But it’s so personal when you’re working 100 hours a week and you’re doing everything you can possibly do to make sure people who come in are happy. There are always going to be mistakes. We take feedback as something that is obviously helpful, but people can just be so mean.”

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