In Defense of Yelpbags: Reconsidering Yelp’s Dumbest Reviews

yelp sticker photo

Yelp stickers. Photo by Yelp.com

With his hilarious series featuring Yelp’s dumbest restaurant reviews , C.A. Pinkham is within spitting distance of Caity Weaver for the title of My Favorite Gawker Writer. (There is especially tough competition this month from Madeleine Davis’ extraordinarily funny and humane profile about the Brony convention.)

I was reading about the recent 9th circuit decision (which apparently says it would be totally cool for Yelp to shake down whoever they want (is that a fair summary?)) when I came across the too-short series of dumbest Yelp restaurant reviews. First, I laughed. And then, I thought, oh, wait, I have totally done some of these things in my long-past Yelping days.

So, with the understanding that the internet runs on a cycle of outrage and defensiveness, I am going to attempt to justify my Yelps. Here are some things that Pinkham and the consensus of commenters say are Not Cool, and the reasons I think they are maybe okay, sometimes, or at least when I do them.

Reviewing a place you have not been

Yelper Mazen M.’s review expresses his dissatisfaction with a bar that would not let him in because of capacity restrictions.  I am totally on board with do not negatively review businesses who, through no fault of their own, are not able to serve you, and are polite about it. But in some circumstances, it is okay-verging-on-good to review a business that you have unsuccessfully attempted to patronize.

One time, I wrote a (hopefully funny and charming not totally embarrassing) review of a vegan hot dog cart on a bicycle which I had traveled a great distance to reach. I had also convinced a skeptical friend to accompany me, only to find that the cart was not where it was supposed to be, according to its posted schedule.  I felt the tiniest pang of “is this a dick move?” before I posted a bad review, but I concluded that if I had read a review that said “I went out of my way to go there during their regular hours and they were not there,” I might have reconsidered the wisdom of making a special trip.  Do I deserve to be disappointed for staking so much hope on a vegan hot dog cart on a bicycle?  Almost certainly.  Is it fair and reasonable to post a negative review of a place you have not been in some circumstances?  I think that it is.

Reviewing a bar’s clientele

Kira I. complains that, at a bar she rated poorly, she heard the lamest pick-up line ever.  Is this the bar’s fault?  Pinkham and the commenters say NO, Kira knew what she was getting into by going to this bar–she even disclaims that it was not her scene and she did not expect it to suit her mood. Finally, she admits that everything else about the experience (the service, the decor) were good.  Is it fair to penalize the business for a bad pick-up line?

Of course it is!  From my reading, Kira’s point was that the place was really douchey.  Not the service, just the clientele.  Fair enough: that’s what the reviewer expected, and that’s what she got.  She didn’t like it, which was reasonable.  She carefully lists the things that she did like about the place, but ultimately, for her, it was a two-star night because of the crowd.

So, the ethical question here is whether the garden-variety douchieness of the clientele fairly reflects on the bar.  I think that it does.  I don’t think you create a douche-bar by accident.  (Whether your cool bar gets overrun is another matter, but steps can be taken to prevent this.)

Is it ethical to negatively review a place you do not expect to like once your suspicions are confirmed?  Again, I think the answer is (sometimes) yes.  If you are up front about your point of view, it is totally legitimate to say “I do not normally like XX kind of bar, and this was that kind of bar.”  There will be people reading your review who share your bias, and will find it valuable.  (There are obvious cases where loving/hating a place because of a bias would be a bad thing.  Damn, this is harder than I thought.)

If you are reviewing an Italian restaurant, and your one-star review says “I do not like Italian food, so I gave this restaurant a bad rating” that sucks, don’t do that.

But if your review is, “this restaurant is full of people who make me uncomfortable and that group of people would not be considered suspect classes in a civil rights case,” that’s useful information.

“Could use some vegan options”

Claire B.’s succinct review of a restaurant (that’s it, in its entirety: “could use some vegan options”) has become a much-repeated punchline for commenters.  I concede that the obvious reading of this review is entitlement all the way down.  I understand and empathize with the outraged throng that cries “do you think every last restaurant has to cater to your preferences?”

I’d like to suggest that the only thing that sucks about this review is that it gave the restaurant one-star. No restaurant is obligated to cater to dietary restrictions; none should be penalized for choosing not to do so.  Also, I know that a fair percent of the internet hates vegans.  I sympathize. We can be really inconvenient, and some of us embody a noxious mixture of smugness and entitlement.

That said, as a vegan who likes to go out in the real world on occasion, one of my main uses for Yelp is to find non-vegan restaurants where I can meet omnivorous friends, so they don’t always have to eat vegan food when we hang out.  I like to know in advance if there’s a chance of getting something more interesting than a salad.  It is super helpful to me when someone posts a Yelp review that answers that question for restaurants that are not known for their vegan food.  “Could use some vegan options,” is the exact information I am looking for.

Perhaps this is a shortcoming of Yelp; poor Claire had to give a star rating in order to share this valuable piece of information, and in so doing, unjustly incurred the wrath of the internet. (Maybe these days she could just leave a tip and not have to review? Who knows how the kids use Yelp these days.)

Conclusion

It may not be fashionable to say so in some circles, but I love Yelp.  It’s insanely useful for finding a vegan option in a strange town.  It’s also just really tremendously amusing(/depressing).  If you want to get a quick read of how dumb people are on the internet, Yelp’s your first stop.  Just mentally prepare yourself for it being worse than you suspect.

Assuming  the ratings are not fixed from the get-go, the standard criticism of Yelp is that any negative review that stems from something that is outside of the direct control of the business is unfair.  I don’t think that’s always true.  As a potential customer, there are things that may be outside of the business owner’s control or consideration that matter to me.

Even assuming that a surprising number of reviewers are dumb or crazy, when a critical threshold of reviews is reached (20? 30?), I find that you can trust the aggregate rating.  At the very least, you can tell a business that people universally love from a business people universally hate–and anything in the middle, you can assume could go either way, but probably is just forgettable.

Am I wrong about this? Are there stories of businesses with lots of reviews whose Yelp ratings were so far off that it was clear that dumb/crazy was a factor?  Also, what are legitimate criteria to review a business?

Ultimately, I think we can all come together and laugh in horror at the guy who’s angry about bats that no one else sees, or the reviewer who takes that fifth star away because her experience was too good, or the old lady who has a meltdown over the packaging of her eggs (although I relate to that one more  than I’d like to admit), or the woman who doubles down on her disappointment that her sushi is not made by real Asians.

Isn’t that what the internet is really about?

 

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