I was taking a break from the screenwerk yesterday and having coffee with a friend in the Piedmont Avenue neighborhood of Oakland. We were at a place I’ve been to before called Café Rooz.
I noticed the sticker below (“No Yelpers”) on a computer behind the counter at the café and so I asked about it. The story I heard was an interesting illustration of the challenges and potential issues caused by user-generated content and pervasive ratings and reviews of local businesses.
What I was told, in a nutshell, is that the café staff has encountered a stream of would-be critics “with attitude,” predisposed to take issue with or be critical of the business. Whether or not this is a correct perception, there are many more outlets (Yelp being only one) for customers and consumers to voice opinions about businesses on the Internet. And there’s little most of these businesses can do about it, for better or for worse.
The staff said to me rhetorically, “If you’ve got a problem with something, you should tell us first rather than going online and posting.” They also expressed the view that amateur reviewers, in this case from Yelp, were not making distinctions between local coffee houses and large corporate outlets like Starbucks. They were, the cafe staff argued, being “snarky” for entertainment reasons or to impress the Yelp community but not being respectful or mindful of the potential impact their reviews might have on a small businesses.
(One could argue “the truth will out” in the aggregate body of reviews.)
To combat some of the negative discussion about the café that was appearing the staff encouraged loyal customers to go online and write positive reviews. You can find the discussion, especially of the sticker, here (scroll or search for “no yelpers”).
On balance it appears the controversy has helped rather than harmed business, although there was no plan for that to happen — there was even an apparently aborted Wall Street Journal article about the controversy. Here are a few verbatim excerpts from the Yelp discussion:
The “no yelping” aspect of this has my panties in a bunch.
How DARE you ban my opinion??
And for this, I shall not return.
Not the best business plan in the world buddy.
Dyed hair, dirty, gothic type staff. Very rude. This business will collapse into an utter pile of vile soon enough due to the Cafe Nazi.
Was in SF on business, will never step foot in here again.
Oh and the place has more “rules” than an elementary school.
EDITED 8-17-07 (I edited the cursing, not him)
Response from the Stan, who I assume to be Steve/Cafe Nazi’s lover:
who gives a F%%K what some red neck from Texas thinks about this shop in Oakland!
Everyone in oakland probably comes across as a goth to someone from Texas…
Lame ass hick…..
Hmm, I’m a hick? You have 457,000 people in Oakland. My metroplex in Houston has 5 million +. You exude class, it simply drips from you. I like your flippant use of the word F**K in your emails to customers. Class..you got it in spades.
I feel like such a renegade yelping this place.
Oh man, yelping a place with THAT sign while sitting at one of its lovely tables “planning” my school year? I’m so bad ass. Watch out now.
Rooz is a great cafe on Piedmont near Pleasant Valley Road. Perfect for people-watching if you can snag a table by the windows. If you’re turned off by the hoards of people at Gaylord’s or are sick of the creepers hitting on you at Starbucks, I suggest giving this place a try.
Another (partial post):
I know people have complained about the service here. Not sure what to say about that. Should one bad experience with an employee change your entire opinion of a place? Here’s my experience-she says hello. I say hello. I ask her a question about what’s on the veggie bagel. She answers my question. She makes my bagel and latte. She says thank you. Gives me a little smile. Fine. It’s not like I’m at Delmonico’s Steakhouse where I expect them to actually lick my ass before I leave the restaurant.
And I did look for the infamous NO YELPERS sticker. It’s small, behind the counter. Owner guy is taking somewhat of a risk having that up and I admire a man who takes risks. I also think it’s hilarious that he wrote someone back explaining why he got treated like shit when most owners would either contact you and totally apologize or ignore you. I’m a firm believer that the customer is not always right-I have huge respect for people who support their employees.
It goes on and on.
The debate within the reviews has equally become about the cafe’s attitude toward “Yelpers” as much as it is about the food or the service. If you read carefully through the discussion you get a sense of the darker side of the user-generated content phenomenon and the problems it poses for small businesses. (See the similar discussion of the Community Generated Local Search panel debate at SMX Local-Mobile.)
The Rooz café staff felt that many of the comments were personal and unfair. They also complained that they had no official way to respond to these reviews (they could have become a member of the community and responded accordingly.) They cited Citysearch as an example of a site that did provide business owners with recourse.
There will have to be a set of best practices that emerges around allowing businesses to react or respond to unfair reviews. The cafe staff said that the owner did attempt to contact some of the people writing the negative reviews.
I’ll say this, however:
- Online reviews are here to stay
- Yelp provides a valuable service
Yet there are elements of some of these reviews that reflect a cavalier and one might argue irresponsible attitude on the part of the writers. I tell this story not to be critical of Yelp or the phenomenon of online reviews, which I’m an advocate of, but to illustrate some of the challenges for everyone that accompany it and the need for some mechanism by which local businesses can respond to or address what may be unfair reviews.
That said, recent research with Opus showed SMBs were largely positive about online ratings and reviews and embracing the phenomenon.