But wait... Yelp doesn't write good or bad reviews, only provides a platform for them to be seen, right?
But what if Yelp could choose which reviews get seen and which don't, thus controlling and affecting what we viewers see and controlling our star rating when we pull up a business on their site. They can and do. And they don't try to deny it either. I've been closely monitoring Yelp activity from a prior business up to my current one and I can assure you, there's more going on than just a site for people to share their experiences to help others online. Something I feel can be vital to the success or failure of a business. But before we get into this, let me start by giving you a brief introduction to who we are.
We are The Grille On The Drive, which is a steakhouse and seafood restaurant as well as a bar located in Wilton Manors, Florida. In our community, there are about 30-35 restaurants and bars located along a one mile stretch. Needless to say, it can become quite competitive, especially in off season with mostly locals and a limited number of tourists in our area. There are no other steakhouses or salad bars on our Drive. We have an amazing chef that has charged $40-50 for entrees in his previous restaurants, yet our prices range from $14-28. We have friendly, smiling servers and bartenders, a newly designed interior with a separate area for a Piano Cabaret and we have managers and an owner that are constantly on the floor greeting and checking in on our diners to make sure their experience is going well; ones that really care about pleasing our guests. We've been open for 60 days during off season, yet we've been busy.
Businesses are automatically added to Yelp soon after opening, not something signed up for. So right off, you're in their system whether you like it or not. We were approached immediately by Yelp sales people to advertise with them. Our owner had advertised with Yelp for a previous business for $600 a month, approximately 15 months. But we chose to hold off advertising for this new restaurant, simply because we just didn't feel we benefit enough prior to justify the cost at this time. There were a few rather aggressive additional attempts from their sales staff to close us, but we refrained. They do however charge $25 a month fee if you'd like to control which photos are displayed on your Yelp site. For our last business, Yelp had chosen a Happy St. Patrick's Day photo as our main thumbnail and random customer non-quality pics for over 3 months after we stopped advertising. Think about that one for a moment. Not our choice to be on the site, but really need to pay at least the $25 not to look bad or misrepresented by images they choose.
June 1, 2018 we opened our doors for the first time. Even though we planned for a soft opening to work out any kinks beforehand, we were surprised to get slammed with a full house by word of mouth with over 300 customers. We are not a small restaurant/bar, but this historic location with four separate rooms (once separate businesses) seats approximately 280 inside and 80 outdoors. A lot of drinks, food and laughter later we ended our first night feeling really good. The first reviews on Yelp were in days later after they added us to their site.
There were 3 reviews: a 5 star, a 4 star and a 1 star. The 4 star was from an Elite Yelper and local member of our community known for being quite hard on his criticism, so this was a great thing. The 5 star review was a praise, and the 1 star was someone that didn't actually dine with us. On the weekends, our bar opens earlier than the restaurant for people wanting to get an early start on celebrating and this person felt that if our doors are open, we should be serving food, period. This upset him so much that he gave us a 1 star. So this 1 star review doesn't reflect our food quality, service or pricing. Yet it remains on our Yelp site to this day and counts towards our overall rating.
In the next couple of weeks, I noticed that five of our reviews were pulled out of consideration by their automated software. All 5 star reviews. Yelp states their automated software is programmed to pull specific reviews out of consideration to a business's overall rating if they 'feel' that review does not help a consumer. It's placed into a category as "not recommended" and removed from your overall rating score. This algorithm is top secret and is not shared exactly how it works. This seems very questionable to our freedom of expression according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Someone else is deciding for our diners whether their personal opinions on this public forum should be heard or not, just doesn't feel right. And why didn't our 1 star from the previous paragraph get removed? It didn't have anything to do with our food, service or pricing so how is this helpful to a customer. Maybe their top secret algorithm is biased to target positive reviews only.
Curious and a bit confused, I called Yelp to inquire about these five not recommended reviews that were pulled lowering our overall rating. The person I spoke to confirms that it's automated and there's nothing they can do. I asked if there was anything I could do and the answer was no. I then proceed to ask to speak with a supervisor and I'm told there is no one higher than them, very nonchalant. Wait, what? I was astonished at the closed door feeling I got where no one could be contacted to inquire further in this matter.
Days go by and I continue to see mostly 4 and 5 star reviews coming in and happy to report to our management staff and owner we had reached 4.5 stars! But after that very weekend, 13 total reviews are pulled as not recommended, moving us back down to 4 stars that fast. Days later again, the number of reviews pulled jumps to 26, lowering us to 3.5 stars. To date we now have 39 reviews pulled out (36 of them are 4 and 5 star reviews) leaving only 19 remaining. Most of these are 1 to 3 star reviews, giving us an overall rating of 2.5 stars now. While all of this is going on, we inside the restaurant are busy, with customers shaking our hands congratulating us at opening this restaurant and receiving many daily accolades. I'm posting to our Facebook site videos and pictures of our crowds, celebrations and special events. Our business and the Yelp site's version of our business are two different entities altogether.
So keep up with me here on this next part to put this in perspective with the numbers we actually have dining with us. We average about 1100 diners a week, so roughly 8800 since we opened 2 months ago. We use Open Table for reservations and counting daily walk ins to keep track. This does not take into account people drinking at our bar. Of those 8800 or so diners, only 58 have actually posted a review on Yelp. 58 out of 8800. So initially, this is such a small percentage (.0065%), it's really debatable whether this is even a reliable source representing our business, especially given that the majority of our customers are not into social media. Clearly.
Help, this feels like a personal attack now!
Who can we go to, what can we do? What would be Yelp's motivation in programming their automated filters to pull out the good and leave the bad? Are they out for a global morale issue feeling that people are being tricked into going into bad businesses? Or could this be money related given they've been sued in the past for bragging about their supposedly padded Stock Market status? Personally, if they were to release all of our positive reviews currently being held captive, we'd show a 4 to 4.5 star rating out of 5 stars. Not bad for a business starting out. Yet they've filtered us to reflect a 2.5 star rating. Is it just us, what did we do? It turns out that literally hundreds of other businesses in the past have claimed that this has been done to extort money from them into paying for their advertising, and they have sued. Is that how they get businesses to advertise with them? By getting us to pay money and slowly watch our star ratings begins to rise? I guess it would have to be a poor rating otherwise not many of us would feel compelled to advertise with them at all, no need.
According to the Better Business Bureau, Yelp.com has 797 out of 819 negative customer reviews, or 97% total. Immediately, I realize I'm not alone in my personal experience with this company. However, Yelp is not accredited so you can't actually file a complaint against them, only leave your comments. These comments do not go any further than simply venting your frustration on their public forum. Every option you click on for a complaint diverts you off to other organizations. Since their grade score primarily reflects complaints, and it isn't possible to leave a complaint, this score will be practically unaffected however.
There have been many lawsuits against Yelp over the last several years from business owners. One California Judge even stated that '[Yelp is like a] modern-day version of the Mafia going to stores and saying, "You want to not be bothered? You want to not have incidents in your store? Pay us protection money"'. But most of these lawsuits are thrown out of court unable to prove the company actually releases these hidden positive reviews after paying for their advertising. Yelp is always ready to fight back with a secret weapon: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996: one of the most valuable tools for protecting freedom of expression and innovation on the internet. But now I ask, where are our reviewer's freedom of expression from telling of their positive experiences from dining at our restaurant, the ones Yelp is pulling out of the rating system. You can't have it both ways, can you?
A study by Harvard Business School reported that a 1 star increase or decrease on these social media reviewing websites can potentially affect a 5-9% change in that business's revenue. If this is true, then Yelp would have the means to financially help or hurt a business. This sounds pretty powerful. And some of these negative reviews are very extreme. Another study was made by Stanford Linguistics Instructor Dan Jurafsky when he analyzed almost 900,000 restaurant reviews and came to the conclusion that people do not write reviews to help people. And nobody gets that upset about food or cocktails, but cannot stand feeling rejected or unimportant. In all of those reviews he barely saw the words "salted" or "overcooked", but most mentioned "waitress" and other words that would evolve around service. Someone feeling for one reason or another that they were dismissed or ignored would cause them to lash out on a public forum for revenge. A social injury does far more damage and causes some to use Yelp as a forum for this revenge or closure. I have to say for over 40 years, I personally have been dining out and visiting hundreds of businesses and I've never once needed to speak to a manager, scream out loud or take my story 'to the streets' in negative reviews in revenge.
Some feel that Yelp has become more of a site for competitive slander, personal grudges and venting social frustration and less of an actual honest experience by consumers that want to help others. There's no system on Yelp to let you know if someone's even dined in your restaurant or not. A jealous business owner down the street, an applicant that didn't get the job, employee fired or even an employee at Yelp anonymously adding to the poor reviews leading to a convenient follow up sales call on how to make your business better. We may never know. However, there are better review sites like Google Reviews, Open Table and the Rewards Network that have better interfaces for matching up actual customers to their reviews.
And don't get me wrong. We're actually doing really well right now and excited to be heading into busy season soon. Most of our diners are not into social media and do not need the internet to tell them what they may or may not like. And many come in multiple times a week and some daily. I've always felt that good old fashioned word of mouth is the strongest and most effective advertising.
Our competitive area of restaurants and bars are naturally going to draw out resentment and jealousy reviews. And I realize you can't please all of the people all of the time. But if someone genuinely has a complaint or needs help with any part of their experience in our restaurant, we're always happy to help them on the spot and go out of our way for them on this or their next visit with something complimentary. But for mom and pop shops out there that are heavily relying on good reviews from Yelp to get people in the door, BEWARE!