Article on Yelp: Text and Subtext

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I was sent this article on Yelp from Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle print edition. It apparently had a prominent placement in the paper (I didn’t see the print edition):

If you think restaurant critics from mainstream newspapers, television and magazines are tough on the food industry, you haven’t spent much time in cyberspace. Online message boards, gossip columns, city restaurant guides and food blogs are proliferating and having a profound influence on where consumers spend their eating dollars. The once-genteel discipline of restaurant reviewing has turned into a free-for-all, celebrated by some as a new-world democracy but seen by others as populist tyranny.

Many restaurateurs say these amateur critics don’t even give them time to press the wrinkles out of their table linens before posting negative write-ups. They long for the days when they had to contend only with mainstream critics, who generally wait at least 30 days before reviewing a restaurant so chefs and staff could work out the glitches.

The text of the article itself shows that the world is now much more complicated for restaurateurs — and by extension small businesspeople in general — with all the user-generated content (UGC) now online. But it’s equally true for large corporations; UGC is tremendously valuable but it makes world much more complicated for everyone, at times even consumers themselves.

There’s also subtext here:

But Michael Bauer, The Chronicle’s restaurant critic and executive food and wine editor, doesn’t believe he’ll be out of a job any time soon.

“I do think the traditional critic still has the most singular influence, but the playing field has been leveled significantly with sites such as Chowhound, Yelp, Citysearch and even Zagat,” he said. “No longer does the newspaper have a lock on the information. It keeps us all on our toes.”

If you’re inclined to dislike UGC and the new culture of participation online you might find the not-so-veiled critique of Yelp and related sites justified. But if you’re a fan you might see this as a print newspaper watching the erosion of one of its core “franchises” (restaurant reviews) and hitting back:

Jennifer Tsang, a 24-year-old associate marketing manager for a San Francisco nonprofit, says she scrolls the Web regularly to check out the restaurant scene.

“If a restaurant only gets one star, I won’t go,” she said.

She recently went to Yelp to look up an Ethiopian place where a friend’s birthday party was to be held. The reviews — not so good. If it had been her choice, she probably would have gone elsewhere. It turned out, she said, that the restaurant was much better than the Yelp reviews had indicated.

Subtext: trust us and professional reviewers, don’t trust sites like Yelp.

Regardless of your interpretation, online reviews are here to stay and everybody from the smallest bistro to the largest corporation has to figure out how to interact with online “influencers” and manage this burgeoning phenomenon.

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One Response to “Article on Yelp: Text and Subtext”

  1. earlpearl Says:

    This is a fascinating change with regard to “opinion making”. I recently made my first review at Yelp…and noticed how someone who had also reviewed the place had over 400 reviews. Cripes…is he/she dining out and buying stuff every day….and doing nothing else.

    I sort of lean toward the perspectives of the professional reviewer. Regardless, the world is changing and, as you suggest, businesses need to understand how to manage reputation in this new world.

    Nice comments.

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