Yelp: (No) Thanks for Sharing

| July 4, 2008 | 32 Comments
  • 32 Comments

yelp logoIn celebration of our most patriotic holiday, I am declaring my own independence from what I consider one of the most irritating sites on the internet– Yelp.com. Even the name causes me to chafe.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word “yelp” means:

1. Noun: a sharp shrill bark or cry (as of a tog or turkey); (see) also squeal.

2. Intransitive verb: To utter a sharp quick shrill cry.

At least. they’ve given themselves an accurate name.

Perhaps it is my own, personal distaste for democracy, especially in terms of voting for, say, restaurants (think Zagat), pop singers (think American Idol), or even presidents (think about whomever you wish) that makes me dislike sites such as Yelp. Before your underwear gets anymore bunched in places, I am hardly un-American. I am a firm believer in our particular form of government, which happens to be republican, rather than democratic. And before your y-fronts become irretrievably lodged, I am referring to systems of government, not political parties. For the sake of argument today, I shall limit my discussion to restaurant commentary.

It seems that anyone with access to a computer today can write a restaurant review, myself included. But is everyone’s opinion worth reading, let alone writing? That is certainly debatable. I for one, don’t think so.

Call me a snob. Call me an elitist pig. I’ve been called much worse.

Of course, I believe that everyone is certainly entitled to his or her opinion, but many opinions expressed on sites like Yelp are neither well-informed nor, as is more often the case, well-written.

For example, I’ve chosen three reviews of Brenda’s French Soul Food on Polk Street, which has, as of this posting, 338 Yelp reviews. This is from a four yelp star rated piece:

“I enjoyed this place a lot. We found parking right on Vaness. Our wait was about 20 minutes. We arrived at 11am I think. It will seat about 20 people-30people. I did not see Brenda though.”

“My first time eating beignets — I did not know it came in threes, I should of ordered one of each. We got three apple ones. It was gooood and fattening.”

“I ordered the bowl of gumbo (dark gumbo). I am use to the tomatoey colored gumbo but it was pretty good.”

“Also got an entree of the Harrytown special which includes oysters, grits and biscuits.”

“I loved the biscuits.”

“Cute little place to revisit or bring out of towners.”

Harrytown Special? I can only assume she meant Hangtown Fry. With testimonials like this, it’s not surprising the restaurant sustains such long lines out the door. Are reviews such as these typed on a texting keypad, rather than at a keyboard? That would be a charitable explanation of such short sentences. It’s like some unevocative, bastard form of haiku. It horrifies, but that’s just fine, since I tend to savor crappiness. The only point it serves, in my book, is as the object of mockery.

Now here is an excerpt from a not-so-good (two yelp star) review:

“Just before we passed out from hunger, they brought over our beignet flight which was good, our favorite beignet was the crawfish. The only other compliment I have is for the coffee. The breakfast plates were mediocre. My friend, who was starving, took 5 bites of her omelette and left the rest.”

She certainly has a flair for the dramatic. If one decides to set out and review a restaurant, whether one has enjoyed the experience or not, one should, to the best of one’s ability, explain why. What made these crawfish beignets good? What could possibly compel a starving woman to take only five bites of an omelette? These are things I want answered. If a reviewer cannot accurately describe her experience– the food she ate, the service she received, or her surroundings– she has no business wasting anyone’s time with her fourth-grade writing skills. Make that third grade– I know a couple of nine year-olds who write much more vividly.

And, finally, here’s a rather terrible (one yelp star) piece:

“I am as honest as a heartbeat, so believe me when I say that this spot is highly overrated. I just have no desire to come again– wait or no wait.”

“I had a bit of all four of our plates and the sampler benettes, so here goes my opinion…”

“My dish– The Shrimp and Goat Cheese Omelet Grits and Cream Biscuit– The shrimp was not devianed and thus flavorless. I opted not to have the bacon relish on top so I will be fair and refrain from further commenting about it. I like my gritts creamier than it was but it was tastey and the buiscutt was pretty good.”

“Watermelon Sweet Tea– Free refills, but they don’t really tell you that. liked it because it was not sweet, and I like water. It was also luke-warm.”

“The Chalkboard Special, Shrimp Pot Pie- The shrimp was overcooked and rubbery, and the veggies were overcooked and mushy. Boo Hoo!”

Honest as a heartbeat. Perhaps she should have her cardiologist examine her for arrythmia. I don’t trust anyone starts off by telling me how honest she is. It was a bad review on a number of levels, star ratings aside. I do, however, admire her creative spelling, the fact that she feels shrimp proto –intestines are where all the flavor is, and that she can’t tell the difference between a mirror and a chalkboard. I read the bit about why she likes the Watermelon Sweet Tea about ten times.

If you’re interested in reading about her bikini waxing at the Pink Cheeks Skin Salon in Sherman Oaks, I will happily email you her yelp profile.

I had hoped the members of Yelp Elite might be a little more helpful or, at least, better writers, since the elite page states:

“…Yelp members who get in are known for having reviews that are insightful, irreverent and personal (aka useful, funny and cool!).”

Of course, it also requests that Elite members have:

“Personal pizazz! Even after all this, we look for a certain je ne sais quoi—we call it Yelpitude. To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice James Stewart when defining pornography in a case about obscenity, ‘Yelp Elite is hard to define, but we ‘know it when we see it.’

Perhaps I should have sensed trouble when I realized the Yelp Elite squad (or, at least, the person responsible for writing the copy) had mistaken a much-beloved Campbell’s Soup-hawking actor for Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart.

The first elite reviewer I read was a young lady named Beverly. She went on and on about her experience with a DAT date to Frisée Restaurant in the Castro. I hope that by DAT she meant “Dine About Town”. Please read:

“Sidenote: It was cramped as s**t. We sat upstairs and the ceiling was like 6 feet high and we sat at a tiny itty bitty table next to a tiny itty bitty walk way. Oh and the service. SLOW AS S**T. I want to minus stars for the service but the food was so good I just can’t bring myself to do it.”

What is it about her personal writing style that led her to become part of the Yelp Elite? Was it her penchant for using fecal terms when describing her experience? Perhaps it was her photos (which are required of all Elite members). Maybe her two lip rings at the right-hand corner of her mouth catch enough food so that she might savor it more thoughtfully upon her return home from dining, quill pen in hand and that deep-in-thought dreamy look that only fake, blue-tinted contact lenses can properly convey. Does she have “that certain je ne sais quoi”? I’m thinking it’s more like elle ne sait rien.

Well, I’ve had my fun at Yelp’s expense today, but to be fair(ish), I must say that, in browsing the site for several hours this week, I have come across some people who do offer thoughtful– and fairly well-written– reviews. Case in point: Kerry “Tempura Assassin” K in describing her experience at Burritoville in San Anselmo:

“[My husband] was a little more offended at the sight of iceberg lettuce on his carne asada taco ($2.95) than I was. Granted, yes, iceberg lettuce in a Mexican restaurant is an insult to my intelligence, I was able to forgive. This was largely due to the chips, which were thick, crisp, and toasty as well as a lovely salsa bar, friendly and welcoming service, a clean environment, and a buy 9 get 1 free taco card.”

“Caveat lector: on the back of the frequent buyer card, it spells out the number of tacos in spanish, “uno, dos, etc.” After the 9th one it says “bingo gringo”. Gringo eh? That must mean that either Latinos and Chicanos don’t eat here or the food isn’t real Mexican. So perhaps my taste can’t be trusted with this review. If you keep reading, read on with that in mind.”

Finally, someone who notices and describes those little details that make a review worth reading. That, and the fact that she used the term caveat lector correctly (or at all). A bright, shining tablet of antacid to save me from so much Yelping bile. I’d really like to hug her. If elite membership could be limited to the likes of Kerry, I think I might have a little more faith in the website. Otherwise, what is the point of creating an elite class, if it is open to, well, everyone?

If you accused me of elitism, you’d be absolutely correct in doing so. Why should I waste my time reading the average person’s average review? I don’t want an average guy running my country, building my home, or giving me a colonoscopy. I want experts. I want smart people. Same goes for my restaurant reviewers. If all you can give me in describing a gumbo is “OMGITSAWESUM!!!”, perhaps you should just keep it to yourself. The world beyond your Myspace friends list is not ready for you.

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About the Author ()

I am terribly fond of martinis, Edward Gorey, and sleeping with many pillows. You are more than welcome to follow me on Twitter: @procopster
  • http://knifesedge.typepad.com haddock

    I agree with all of the above. There is one thing that Yelp is useful for though. Many of our customers are NOT experts, many will not know what Hangtown Fry might be, many will not know beignets, from Ben Gay but they are all experts on what they like. I am in the business of charging people money for a dining experience, and as much as I would like to have a dining room full of savvy diners, the truth is if I get 2-3 a night I’m happy.

    I KNOW what the savvy think. I’ve been called elitist too. It’s instructive to know what everyone thinks and see how I can apply it to my restaurant.

  • http://www.pauldingandcompany.com Terry P

    Anytime you have “democratic” reviewing you are going to get duds, but by taking some time to seek out on-point reviews, and simply ignoring the 80 IQ offerings, or the ones who review only the bar, I find the site can be helpful.

    I’ve reviewed a few restaurants myself, not many but several times because of extreme frustration after “dining” in over-hyped restaurants with underwhelming food and service, and several times because I was honestly pleased with a new find, and wanted to share. I routinely use the site to find new ideas on where to dine, trying to expand my horizons. Where else can I (for instance) search for Korean restaurants in Oakland and get some depth of insight about their offerings?

    Generally if I’m using the Yelp reviews, I go a quick survey of ratings, see how many people have reviewed, and then scan a sampling, trying to include some on both ends of the chart. There is usually enough info to make a decision on trying the place.

    Usefulness of anyone’s reviews decline when the volume of reviews grows very large. For some of the over-hyped joints, (like Wood Tavern for instance) where there are 178 entries and counting, and where I know my very negative review is buried midway through the pile, I simply figure I had a chance to vent, and nobody will ever really notice the review unless they fastidiously read every single one, or are seeking out reviews that corroborate their own bad experience, hoping that somebody out there felt the same way they did.

    I’d love to know of another site as useful, for all it’s flaws; Zagat is limited to say the least, not even including the lesser-known places, and then doing a very cursory synopsis of input.

  • Amy

    I don’t think your beef is really with Yelp, but with reviews in general.

    “…many opinions expressed on sites like Yelp are neither well-informed nor, as is more often the case, well-written.”

    True enough, but where do you find well-informed and well-written reviews? You have to be able to assess the credibility of the reviewer no matter where you are looking–in the newspaper, Yelp, Chowhound, Citysearch, Zagat, etc.

    Of all the review sites online, Yelp is actually my favorite. I often find very well-written reviews from knowledgeable reviewers. Most importantly I find it fairly easy to pick through the nonsense and find the really good reviews that help me decide for myself where I want to eat.

  • http://www.wanderingspoon.com Thy Tran

    Yes, there are a large number of unhelpful and uninformed reviews at Yelp.

    But I have certainly read my share of reviews written by so-called experts who obviously know nothing about the culture, history or social context of the food that they’re eating.

    Many reviewers I know don’t know — or worse, don’t like — to cook. Or they have never worked in a production kitchen or full-service dining room, which seems to me a possible and reasonable requirement for writing about food in restaurants.

    The way I use Yelp is to scan very quickly, gather general impressions, filter out the extremes, and then look specifically for people who reveal some knowledge about the food. Say, a person who grew up eating a particular cuisine or a regular patron who knows what to order.

    Those are much more helpful to me than critics with overblown egos — mostly male, mostly white — writing about a world of food from a very narrow point of view.

  • http://www.hudin.com Hudin

    I’ve used Yelp since 2005 and I enjoyed it a good deal at first, but as many articles have pointed out, it’s success is quickly becoming it’s undoing. The site is awash in pander with a dash of blather and everything is about 3.5 to 4.5 stars on average (they should have used a 10 system). Beyond the poorly written reviews, there is no manner with which to really cull through the swamp of data that is Yelp.
    When it comes to real restaurant reviews, I turn to Michelin. When it comes to having an address directory of places, I used to use Yelp, but now just use Google since I don’t feel that I can trust Yelp’s search system. I hope that someday Google will buy out Yelp, streamline it, and end what has become a site for the hipster scene of SF.

  • Al C

    I must disagree with one of your opening statements. Our form of government is a “REPUBLIC”, not Republican, which, contrary to your statement, is a political party, as is the Democratic party. As to the rest of your column, I must admit that I am not qualified to offer meaningful comment.

  • Matt

    Since when do people have to be qualified to be good to write reviews?

    Anyone with an opinion deserves to share it…you’re writing a blog that I find interesting and I am reading, after all.

    In the same sense that I don’t care for the reviews of a honda from someone who drives a Mercedes 24/7 I don’t care to hear reviews from a foodie about some local yokel place. Neither scenario is ever truly reliable or not, and is up to each individual anyway.

    Yelp reflects on the unfortunate truth of the scenario: that someone having a bad day is going to call wherever they go equally crappy and vice versa. However, it is a source of reviews – why should you harp on it anymore than someone saying you are somehow not qualified to write your blog because you’re not a professional writer or something, which can be refuted in a multitude of different ways?

  • http://www.twitter.com/nickleung Nick Leung

    I totally agree with you. Yelp needs to find a better way to have the business owners to engage with their customers. Direct customer feedback and building community is paramount.

  • http://Yelp.com OMGITSAWSUM!

    You suck!

    jk. lol. rofl.

    okay, enough.

    it’s easy enough to discern (out of yelp’s reviews) which ones sound..legit, or reviews that you could agree with. nine times out of 10, it’s pretty much right — agreeable. i went and looked for a good chinese restaurant in San Francisco, and even though people’s reviews aren’t as polished (or as knowledgeable, ingredients–is that what you meant by what professionals know?) as “professional” critiques are, (you’ll love this) “Yelpers” are pretty much on point; Yelp reviews are a consensus and people like variety in opinions especially if they have to let go of hard-earned money in looking for a place to dine or shop or…whatever.

    That’s what Yelp offers and that what people really look for.

    If you think of yourself as an Elitist and not agree with the idea of Yelp, well…you’re the minority and majority rules — not to say we’re not bright, because we are because we’re using Yelp: a service that’s on point because people (most) will tell it like it is.

  • http://everyonesgotone.yelp.com Jess M.

    Michael P. writes: What is it about her personal writing style that led her to become part of the Yelp Elite? Was it her penchant for using fecal terms when describing her experience?

    Didn’t you write that you ‘tend to savor crappiness?’ ???

    I think you’re being a little too persnickety about slang, style, content and spelling for a social networking and consumer review site. If you haven’t noticed, the Internet is an open frontier for all (yes, even poorly versed Republicans). Speaking of, you used a Wikipedia entry as reference material!

    Then again, perhaps you’re just a tad upset that ‘mere consumers’ are reviewing food and they didn’t have to attend culinary school to be taught what to like. I, for one, have an English degree and find your blog to be… vapid at best.

  • sandy

    If you don’t like it, don’t read it.

    Luckily, we live in a country giving us a right to speech. Therefore, you may write about your likes/dislikes on your blog and “Yelpers” may write about their likes/dislikes of any restaurant around the world.

  • Teal Heise

    Indeed. Good thing for you that these “real people” are not professional writers. Further crowding in your field might be detrimental to the pervasiveness of your byline.

    While I already know where to look for “qualified” food writing (and it isn’t KQED’s blogosphere), I look to yelp for up-to-date regular-person reviews. Anyone scanning through the reviews can decide which are worth merit, and which are the product of a moronic mind.

    Why so threatened? Why should only you weigh in? Only your “professional” opinion has merit?

  • Berna

    The beauty of Yelp lies in that it caters to the general public. People like what they like, and often times seek to identify with their writer. You can’t expect an average Joe to understand the musings of some overly haughty food snob…most people are likely to listen to people who are more similar to them – kind of like how you would get a recommendation from your friend on where to eat, or where to shop, or perhaps switching dentists or primary care physicians.

    My ex used to rely solely on Zagat and Michael Bauer reviews for places for us to go to dinner. Yes, we managed to find some great places, but we also missed out on a plethora of dives and hole in the wall joints that deserve as much attention as the five star places lauded so blatantly among professional food critics.

    Yes, the writing can be irreverent and flawed on Yelp, but it’s real and highly opinionated, which I like. Granted, maybe many Yelpers may not be paid to write every day, but they enjoy it. I read the reviews of certain individuals more than others, and I know who is reliable and has tastes similar to mine. It’s been helpful in a lot of ways.

    Oh, and full disclosure – I’ve been reviewing on Yelp for about three years now. I think it’s fantastic.

  • Wendella

    Hmm…why do you care? Talk about panties in a bunch. Your boxer/briefs are seaworthy at this point due to your well-knotted distress. Good grief. You’re a blogger for goodness sake. A snotty one. Woot-woot – look out Hemingway. Yelp is a resource, not a literary masterpiece. People can peruse it and use at their discretion. It’s not a force feed.

  • Joe Lunch Bucket

    So all of your reviews are more detailed, thoughtful and reflect the dinning experience of wide variety of diners more so than the sum of the reviews posted on Yelp? If you can accomplish that, then I agree, Yelp is a flash in the pan and we should continue to seek out the opinion of certified snobs. But if you can’t say that each of your reviews provides more perspective than the multitude of Yelp posts for any given restaurant, then people will continue to pull away from more traditional media and rely on many reviews of varying quality rather than one or a few professional reviews from the elite. If you’ve read through Yelp reviews as your article indicates, I’m sure you noticed that there are many, many food snobs who I’m sure are as verbose, detailed and as pompous as you. But don’t take my tone too seriously—my reply, as well as your blog, as well as everything on Yelp should be taken with a grain of salt. I don’t really thing this Internet thing’s going to last much longer anyway…

  • OakeySmokey

    The problem with Yelp is, you would think a food review site would actually have FOODIES as their Elite members…the kind of people who try different cuisines, are well-versed on ingrediants and menus etc.

    But No………..To be a Yelp Elite Member, you basically just have to party with the top Yelpers and be part of their clique. It has NOTHING to do with how good their reviews really are, it’s just a social thing…..kinda like High School. Yup High School – Yelp Elites resemble the movie “Mean Girls” for the most part.

    Alot of their reviews start with “I really hate [blank] cuisine, but….”

    Yelp is lame.

  • CKS

    I howled aloud at your review of Yelp! Keep writing! While certain Yelpers are circling their wagon, others may be actually trying to improve their writing skills!
    Thanks for the perspective!

  • Romero

    You have some good points, but lost all credibility with weird attacks like this:

    “If you’re interested in reading about her bikini waxing at the Pink Cheeks Skin Salon in Sherman Oaks, I will happily email you her yelp profile.”

    and this:

    “Maybe her two lip rings at the right-hand corner of her mouth catch enough food so that she might savor it more thoughtfully upon her return home from dining”

    Reminds me of a douchebag yakking at me regarding some girls that rejected his advances for a date.

    Weak sauce, and lacking of any real substance. “I want smart people.” Yes, please.

  • Mary

    I agree with Romero.

    Why did you only single out women to belittle individually?

    Hate/fear women much? Please. Grow up. Give me an expert blogger please. This below average blogger is a waste of cyberspace. I want smart people.

  • http://saraspeaking.wordpress.com sara no h.

    I tend to like Yelp just as a way to find new places to try – it’s convenient to be able to type in “thai food” near my zip code, and have a handful (or armload, as the case may be) of places pop up. I agree that some of the reviews are … lacking … but if nothing else, it’s a good way to gauge where the eateries are and how much I should expect to spend on them.

    I also write reviews from time to time on Yelp, but I like to think that my posts contain substance. Hubris, I know ;)

  • Steven G

    Thanks for your opinion but I pride myself on my REAL reviews. It’s a breath of fresh air when you can read something that sounds like it didn’t come from someone who sniffs, swills, and spits out wine. Silver spoon in mouth much?

  • Ginger Grant

    So you have your Yelp groupies who cry foul with any criticism of their beloved site and you have people who expect far too much from the site.

    It allows the general public to blog about their exeriences. what do you expect? most people simply aren’t THAT intelligent or good communicators/writers.

    So I’ll say what I always do about the opinions on Yelp: you read them carefully. And you figure out whose opinion you’re reading.

    oh and all this BS that Yelp is business practice: such as allowing advertisers to have their negative reviews sink to the bottom of their listing -is not helping their credibility at all.

  • Uncle Fishbits

    I like Yelp. I don’t really read the reviews much anymore and simply use it as a blog for ME, and what I ate. However, I note one thing… the more successful it gets, the more reviews will happen, which means the bell curve will go into effect, I assume? I mean… in the end won’t every restaurant.. whether a diner or Danko, average out?

    More reviews from more reviewers (whether pro or not), makes them wash out into nothingness… which is why a lot of pro’s hate yelp… it threatens them (not that it should).

    I think we step back, remind ourselves not to overvalue a review (good or bad), and let the social networking site that Yelp is flourish.

    People will finally start to realize it is simply a facebook for local psuedo-foodies.

  • http://CVICKIK@AOL.COM VICKI

    YOU JUST GAVE MY DAUGHTER A VERY GOOD REVIEW HER NAME IS KERRY K. SHE IS VERY BEAUTIFUL AND SMART.
    SHE GRADUATED WITH AN ENGLISH DEGREE AND WRITES
    BEAUTIFULLY. I HAVE KEPT HER POETRY AND WRITING FROM
    WHEN SHE WAS A LITTLE GIRL.
    I AGREE WITH YOU SHE IS THE ONLY STAR ON YELP.

  • Annabelle Lee

    Yes, our nation is a rebublic but we are not Republicans. “Republican” refers to the party or any of its members, as does “democrat”. Little confusin’, I know.

    As for Yelp!, someone should stick it with several, severe, EFF-U knives until it dies with “a sharp quick shrill cry”. Too many lazy, uninformed thoughts poorly expressed. Yes, it does take a (global) village but just remember, there are more half-wits, idiots, and morons in the village than one can shake a stick at, or throw a sushi knife at, depending on your bent. I avoid it like fast food.

  • Annabelle Lee

    OOps; please forgive the typo. It’s republic, not rebublic, though I may want to move there if in fact it’s the capital of all things sparkling and effervescent.
    Love, Bubbles.

  • Annabelle Lee

    “awating moderation”? Does that mean you intend to lessen the acerbity of my assertions? OUCH.

  • Annabelle Lee

    Where’s my review? Why was it expunged? I used no profanity and the it was better written than most. Do I have to sing the praises of my very beautiful son and what a star he is?

  • http://blogs.kqed.org/bayareabites/ bayareabites

    Sorry Annabelle — all posts are moderated on this forum, and in addition your posts were labelled spam by our Akismet spam filter.

  • Kent

    Thanks for writing about Yelp. Your points are very well stated. I had thought I was the only one annoyed by Yelp. At first I like the name – thought it was fun. Then I joined and began to realize they were censoring/suppressing some of my reviews. I couldn’t find any rhyme or reason to it. Their ‘user support’ people were no help.

    Now I see Yelp as the worst of both worlds (both elitist and democratic). They are a forum for shills and self-righteous know-it-alls – who are their version of ‘elite’ – together with behind-the-scenes censoring according to some proprietary agenda. This makes them yet another untrustworthy generator of inane garbage in a garbage saturated culture.

  • Tina W.

    THANK YOU! I think most people who leave negative comments on Yelp, myself included, are so irrational and irritated at the time that their experience comes out more as a regurgitation of words and not well thought out coherance. Your enjoyable blog will be saved to my favorites to assist in my efforts of leaving relevant, or at least entertaining, comments or complaints.

  • http://www.ningishzidda.com Naomi Ningishzidda

    Thank you for writing this. I just joined their site and left within a few seconds after I went to spell correct my REAL last name (merged with my middle initial)

    Their automated service states an “are you sure” message that made me gag:

    “Change my real name. (I realize that Yelping under a fake name is neither useful, funny nor cool, and certainly is not very Elite!)”

    It might be useful to me to be anonymous of course…although I have had a pretty much open book policy for 10 years on the internet.I know hundreds of people who are easy to find using their internet handle. I just found the whole thing to be tacky. What the hell is elite about using your real name? What the hell is cool about using your real name?! I only do it for business purposes.

    You don’t wear your information harvesting corporate self in front of the internet, it’s like walking around with your pants around your ankles and asking “Are you sure you don’t want me to look at you naked?”