Restaurants say online reviewers exploit their power
Wednesday , May 30, 2012 - 9:34 AM
SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Restaurant owner Sonny Mayugba was given an offer he almost could not refuse this month.
Not by a local gangster, but by a user of a popular online review site, Yelp.com.
Mayugba said the user threatened to blast the Red Rabbit Kitchen and Bar in Sacramento, which Mayugba co-owns, on Yelp because he believed he and his party got food poisoning from their meals.
Mayugba said it was impossible to prove whether the man got food poisoning from the restaurant but offered to give him a $60 gift card to a restaurant of his choice. The man said he deserved $100. If the restaurant did not pay up, he said he would write a bad Yelp review and report him to health authorities.
Restaurant owners say online websites have changed consumer behavior as many people rely more on citizen reviews than on reviews of professional critics or advertisements. Yelp had a monthly average of more than 71 million unique visitors and 27 million reviews worldwide this year from January to the end of March, the company said.
In the end, Mayugba said, he refused to give the man anything and is not sure if the man posted a review on Yelp. But he said the experience made him rethink the value of Yelp and websites like it, which he said he loves.
"I was so upset," Mayugba said. "He was taking something that was inherently good to use it as a tool to extort a restaurant. It was just so wrong."
Other owners have a name for it: "Yelp extortion" - when customers threaten to write a bad review if the restaurant does not offer some sort of benefit, such as a gift card, free meal or preferred seating.
Kristen Whisenand, public relations manager for Yelp, said in an email that the website allows for users and business owners to flag reviews that violate the website's terms of service. If it is determined the review is fake, biased or malicious, it will be taken down.
She also said Yelp is different from other review websites because it has an automated review filter that attempts to remove reviews that are biased, malicious or phony. The system is not perfect and sometimes removes legitimate reviews and leaves up bad reviews, she said.
Regardless, some restaurateurs question the credibility and motives of some online reviewers.
Josh Nelson, co-owner of The Kitchen restaurant in Sacramento, said he is suspicious that shills might be giving good reviews to competitors. He also said he is concerned about how websites like Yelp verify whether the person has actually been to the business they are reviewing.
"We do pay attention to Yelp because we want to know what people are saying," he said. "Sometimes (the reviews) have merit, sometimes they don't."
Billy Zoellin, owner of Sacramento's Bacon and Butter restaurant, said he had to deal with a party of 16 that threatened to write bad Yelp reviews because the restaurant had no room to seat them in a timely manner Monday, which was the restaurant's first day. Zoellin said the restaurant was full at the time and suspects the group was trying to be seated faster.
"In this industry, these are things we are susceptible to, whether we deserve it or not," he said.
Nelson said he also has had to deal with customers' emails suggesting they would write a bad review if they did not get something in return from the restaurant.
Yelp's Whisenand said the site's filter overall works. "The filter does a good job given the sheer volume of reviews and the difficulty of its task," she said.
She declined to reveal how the filter recognizes phony reviews, saying some users could use the information to deliberately skirt the system.
But Nelson said reviews he requested be taken down on Yelp for bias were not removed. Not that bad reviews on the website have affected the restaurant too much: The Kitchen currently has an average five-star rating on Yelp, the highest a business can get.
Nelson said he thinks consumers will return to depending on the reviews of professional critics as the number of reviewers on Yelp grows.
"There may be so much chatter and noise on the websites that the value of a critic is going to grow," he said.
But Mayugba, of the Red Rabbit, said he thinks consumers' reliance on these websites will only increase.
"More people trust citizen reviews these days," said Mayugba, who started a social networking website for the restaurant industry in 2007.
"Social media is a wonderful thing for the world, but when its integrity is compromised, what is it worth?
)2012 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)
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