The Internet is a beautiful thing: facilitating the free, open exchange of raw opinion and information. In the restaurant world, it has started to challenge the unquestioned authority of restaurant critics; sites like Yelp
allow any customers to make straightforward assessments of their dining experience, and then post all reviews, democratically, for all to see.
Right? Well, sort of. While Yelp
and others do allow any online user to review restaurants, eateries, and more, the process is not quite so transparent as one might think. After a restaurant is reviewed on the site, Yelp often approaches the owners, soliciting a monthly fee (or, in their words, “sponsorship”) so that positive reviews float to the top—giving readers a stronger overall impression of the establishment. Some restaurateurs are left with the impression that if they do not pay, their standing on the site will suffer. Moreover, the restaurants that foot Yelp a fee appear first on the site—in a search like “New York Bagel,” your ranking among hundreds might make a real difference. And Yelp “sponsors” can even select a single comment to appear first, so that their most glowing review catches the customer’s eye.
Some restaurants see this as a way to counter unfair reviews. With the openness of the Internet comes anonymity. So if a burger joint receives an angry one-star review, it could be from a legitimately unhappy patron… or it could be from the burger shop two blocks over. With this sort of cyber-competition, many places feel that they have no choice but to boost their own standing.
At the end of the day, most Yelp reviewers are just customers—and most businesses don’t pay Yelp a penny. But the tactics used to display those reviews are far from transparent.