Food: The Yelper Phenomenon

District Hardware + The Bike Shop

One of the boons of the internet is that anyone with a computer (or smart phone) can have their opinion posted online for people to see.

Conversely, one of the banes of the internet is that anyone with a computer can have their opinion posted about you or your business.

Spider Holster System

Be it on this blog or on my yelp profile, I write reviews of products, services, or restaurants when I get the chance. Some of my reviews are for items which don’t have a lot of decent in-depth reviews online (like the Crumpler Complete Seed and the Spider Holster). I feel like its important to provide reviews, photos, and information especially with products that don’t always get the spotlight – even more so if you really like the product/service.

So enters the Yelp phenomenon, where everyone becomes a critic. I have some friends who are fantastic yelpers – they provide a detailed review of their experience trying to write as impartially as possible. While yelp is good for any restaurant, service, and just about any business out there -I want to concentrate on the restaurant reviews that lead people to think they’re the next Jeffrey Steingarten, Ruth Reichl, or Francois Simon. This is not to stifle each person’s opinion, which we are all entitled to. but rather this is a guide for how to interpret those yelp reviews.

A little side note on yelp: I am a big fan of consumer-level review aggregates. This is pretty much the concept behind Domino’s Show Us Your Pizza promotion. Both Yelp and Domino’s has seen how positive reviews and consumer generated “true” information is better absorbed by the public. But don’t forget the bad reviews on Yelp can affect the viewing public. These negative reviews can portray a business in poor light – when really it was the writer’s biases that drove the poor review.

Vegetable Terrine

Some of the biases I’ve encountered while reading Yelp reviews are:

Ridiculous Expectations
A vegetarian that walks into a steakhouse and complains about the lack of vegetarian options is ridiculous. I’m not going to go to a salad shop and complain there isn’t X or Y cut of meat. Someone who complains that the chef “doesn’t have a gluten-free option” or “won’t accomodate my macrobiotic needs” needs to be taken down a peg. Essentially, these are the people who see restaurants as venues to serve their wishes. you can tell these reviews by their constant self-references. “Because I am [insert food aversion], this [insert polar opposite food style to aversion] restaurant should have some options for me”. These reviews are to be taken with a giant grain of salt. they are egocentric and should be ignored unless you are of similar eating background – in which case: google the restaurant and read up about it to see if it matches your food restrictions BEFORE going to eat there.

Black and Whites

Rampant Illiteracy
They don’t know the difference between “compliment” and “complement”. They use inappropriate and unnecessary abbreviations to write reviews “omg, the mush risote [mushroom risotto] ftw. btw get a side of brocli (sic), you won’t regret!” They have trouble remembering if creme brulee has two “e”s on the end. They write reviews without much thought or effort. These tirades tend to have mostly emotional information and lack the substance a negative review needs. these are similar to lazy reviewers, except they write poorer. They don’t know when to use “affect” and “effect”, they don’t use correct spelling of ethnic foods. it’s not that they can’t – they’ve learned this before, they’re just too lazy to really care.

Don’t get me wrong, food is very emotional for a lot of people. “comfort food” didn’t come about because we arbitrarily assigned mac and cheese or chicken soup as the american “comfort foods”. they came about because a lot of people (at the time of the coining of the phrase) related eating mac and cheese or chicken soup to a time in their past which they were comforted, likely by their parents. These strong emotional bonds we have with food are not the same for everyone – they are very unique and have different effects on each of us.

Halloween Domo

The Attention Whores
These yelpers are the ones most likely to use lots of capital letters, exclamation points, etc. they write reviews that are one-star or five-stars and nothing in between – for them, it’s only worth it if it they can blast something or rave about it. also a useless yelper whose review you can ignore.

The Overly Forgiving
“the waiter came by and didn’t make eye contact, he must have had a bad day”. These are yelpers who in real life are the same way – their over-forgiveness lends itself to making excuses for strangers. These are the yelpers who say “service was slow, it took two hours to get my meal, but it’s ok – it was a busy night”. These yelpers are probably the least reliable for reviews because they’re scared to be critical, they don’t want to ever give a bad review because “the chef’s work so hard”. These reviews tend to sugar coat the truth and are therefore hard to discern how the experience really went. Caution against relying on these yelpers for reviews you can use.

Red Rock Canyon 2010

The Wanna-bes
These food critics claim they have more taste buds on their tongues. they claim to have eaten at the same table with famous chefs and celebrities. They are the ones whose yelp review list contains only the trendiest places and they all have five stars. These wanna-bes have little to no culinary training or experience – they may not even cook for themselves comfortably. They are most likely to call themselves foodies, falling quickly into the Trendy group of foodie hell.

Montreal 2010

So why do I care? Well, really I only care when I’m going through some restaurant reviews of some place I’ve just heard of – and come across a slew of essentially worthless reviews.

They use comparative statements without a frame of reference:
“they didn’t give me enough fries”
well did they give you 3 shoestring fries or do you just eat an exorbitant amount of fries? without a frame of reference, things like “generous portion” or “tiny” or “small” are pretty useless adjectives. tell me “I expected a taco the size of taco bells, but ended up getting something closer to chipotle burrito size” so at least there is some kind of reference we can compare.

they use their own measuring scale for the food they eat (most common with meat):
“this is not medium, this is rare”
well, maybe you should have asked the server what the house definition of “medium”, “medium rare” and “rare” before ordering your steak – every place can be different. just because you think “medium” means XYZ, doesn’t mean the restaurant does. These yelpers are not only poor reviewers, but apparently pretty bad restaurant-goers. These are the same people who will complain about the portion size but speak nothing of the quality (like with foie gras or truffle shavings).

Sol's Birthday 2010

So as a general rule, the “elite yelpers” tend to have food reviews down to a science. Their reviews are concise and have a good amount of information that is useful. they tend to be as objective as they can be when writing and more often than not have pretty well-written reviews. Now, although I like the elite reviews, I must caution you, some of them are talking with an air of douche-baggery that may have slipped by the Yelp staff screening process for elite reviewers. In general, elites can be trusted – but obviously, some undesirables will slip through the cracks.

So how can you help?

sign up for yelp and write reviews of your own. write something that is meaningful for you and something you think the community will be able to use. I tend to yelp on the positive side (3+ stars)- leaving the 1-star for the truly wretched. Please write like you passed high school english – it speaks to your credibility and trustworthiness.

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