Everyone’s a critic

Restaurant reviewing in the age of yelp

By Paula Johnson

In a 2010 interview, chef, TV personality and author Anthony Bourdain pronounced the restaurant critic dead, replaced by the democracy of the website Yelp. He referred to professional critics as dinosaurs, irrelevant relics. Seeing as it’s my job, and the job of many others, I thought I would examine this a bit and turn to a few others in the industry for their take on the value and merit of both crowd sourced and professional restaurant reviewing. I spoke to Melissa McCart, formerly with the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, and now dining critic for Newsday, and Greg Morabito, editor at the website Eater.com and cohost of the site’s podcast, The Eater Upsell.

But first, what is Yelp? It’s the first and the biggest dog in the room, founded in 2004. How big?  Yelp grew from six million monthly visitors in 2007 to 16.5 million in 2008 and from 12 to 24 cities during the same time period. By 2009, the site had 4.5 million reviews. By 2010, Yelp’s revenues were estimated to be $30 million and it employed 300 people. In 2015 revenue estimate grew to upwards of $550 million.

Since anyone can be a Yelp reviewer—and it’s anonymous—the idea is that it’s totally unbiased. And while that might be true, is it really helpful? You can read Jane’s review of an Indian restaurant, even though she’s never eaten Indian cuisine and doesn’t like “all that curry stuff,” or you can read John’s review of a new local Mexican place, even though his experience with south of the border food is limited to Taco Bell. As McCart puts it, “Your friend might be a beer geek, but you’re the cocktail person. Are you going to value his opinion on the latest cocktail bar? Probably not.”

Morabito goes further,” The main problem with Yelp is that the reviewers don’t have any authority and the language is oftentimes dull and amateurish.”

The real deal?

And are the writers legitimate? As Chicago Magazine critic Jeff Ruby wrote, “The once-vibrant river full of ‘Real people. Real reviews’—as Yelp describes itself—now flows into an unnavigable sea where sulky ax grinders and anonymous shillers lurk, and it’s too late to reverse the flow.”

Yelp is supposed to be able to spot fake reviews. The site’s spam filter claims to separate truth from tripe, but browsing through reviews finds huge numbers of them sounding like blatant PR. A study from Harvard professor Michael Luca analyzed 316,415 reviews in Boston and found that fake reviews constituted almost 20 percent in 2014. Yelp’s own review filter identifies 25 percent of reviews as suspicious.

Add it up

And then there’s the problem of advertising. Yelp’s revenues come from selling ads and sponsored listings to small businesses. Advertisers can pay to have their listing appear at the top of search results, or feature ads on the pages of their competitors. Throughout much of Yelp’s history there have been allegations that Yelp has manipulated their website’s reviews based on
participation in its advertising programs. Many business owners say Yelp salespeople offered to remove or suppress negative reviews if they purchase advertising. Others report seeing negative reviews featured prominently and positive reviews buried; soon after, they would receive calls from Yelp attempting to sell paid advertising.


So is Yelp the actual dinosaur now? It might be approaching relic status, according to Morabito.

“I honestly hate using Yelp because it feels clunky and there’s too much to wade through,” he says. “I think it’s becoming irrelevant and will be dead in a decade. Yelp is still a useful tool but it’s quickly getting eclipsed by Instagram. That’s the platform that people can’t get enough of.  If I want to get information about a restaurant, I often look at its Instagram place page to see what people are ordering and taking photos of.”

McCart has a slightly different take. She notes, “It’s a resource. It’s not an either/or with Yelp vs. professional critics. I use Yelp a lot—not for the writing—but for general impressions and particularly which restaurants are opening and closing. Yelp is good for the big picture scenario, but not nuanced specifics. And Yelp is much easier to navigate than most newspaper websites for people to get information. If you are in an unfamiliar neighborhood and don’t know where to go, traditional media isn’t your go-to. If you’ve got to click more than three times, you just won’t bother.”

So where does this leave professional food criticism?

“People love reading the work of professional critics like Pete Wells and Ryan Sutton. I hope (and think), that people will always want the professionals’ point of view,” Morabito says.

McCart concludes, “In the end both platforms are a resource for diners and they dovetail in my opinion. Both are and will continue to be legitimate ways for people to make decisions about where to go.”

And my own take on this? I truly hope that by offering experience, and historical and cultural context, DCP readers will be able to get a clear picture of what a particular restaurant is all about. And whether they agree or disagree, the relationship between critic and reader is something I think both parties value. Feedback (pun intended) is always welcome!

Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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