Yelp.com, a website designed to act as a democratic compendium of business and restaurant reviews, is drawing the ire of bakers and restaurateurs.
The site, which started in San Francisco in 2004, allows users, many anonymously, to post reviews about goods or services. Yelp now contains pages housing libraries of business reviews for larger cities nationwide. Many restaurant review sites exist, but Yelp is among the largest.
The site survives by selling advertising space to, among others, reviewed businesses. Recent controversies in the Chicago and San Francisco Yelp markets have businesses alleging that Yelp salespeople offered to manipulate the positioning of the reviews on the page. By amassing better reviews near the top of the list, the businesses would give a better impression to web viewers. Yelp officials have denied the allegations in local press.
Bakers see fundamental problems with the site unrelated to the alleged sales practices.
“The Internet is good and bad,” says Dennis Stanton, owner of Swedish Bakery, Chicago. “It's a great way to disseminate information remarkably quickly, but there's no check on misinformation. If someone has an ax to grind, they can do some damage.”
Stanton is referring to the propensity for problem customers to use the Yelp site as a sounding board to anonymously trash businesses.
Janice Ahlgren and Charlie Feder of Rossmoor Pastries in Signal Hill, Calif., have had a couple of bad experiences with the website as direct results of misunderstandings with their customers.
Despite Feder having careful instructions available for anyone who would ask, one bride and groom didn't mention they would be saving the top tier of their wedding cake for their one-year anniversary. The customers put the cake, protected only by a cardboard box, in the freezer, then were surprised to see it emerge six months later in bad condition.
“They thought they should get a free cake out of it,” Feder says. “We didn't agree. The next thing we knew, there was a new negative message on Yelp screaming about our poor service.”
The person who left the negative remarks on the website, of course, didn't explain the situation with the freezer and the demand for a free cake. Some bakers see this as a major fault of the site; consumers have a forum for grievances, but bakers have limited ability to publically respond without responding as a fellow reviewer. This can be viewed by potential patrons as disingenuous, as can positively reviewing your own bakery.
Ahlgren sees any response as a double-edged sword. Too much explaining can appear to be sour grapes or even confrontational, putting bakers between a rock and a hard place. “It's unfairly skewed toward the reviewer. Just look at the name: Yelp!,” she says. “The only way to win the game is not to play.”
The Yelp site does have a free business registration feature that allows bakers to include limited bakery information, hours, contact number and an image. Disregarding his distrust of Yelp as a site, John Roeser of Roeser's Bakery, Chicago, is registered and actively follows new reviews as they appear.
“When you register with the site, it notifies you of new reviews and allows you to respond to folks who write reviews,” he says. “These responses aren't public, but I find it helps to thank people for their input, even some of the negative reviews.”
Bakers agree that everyone makes mistakes and has bad days, so some of the negative reviews are earned.
Reviewers can change their review, and Yelp salespeople cite the ability to privately respond to reviewers as a resource for businesses. But this can open Pandora's box for some customers to blackmail bakers; a free cake, discount or refund in exchange for removing a negative review.
Stanton has a laissez faire attitude toward peer review sites. “You can't really do anything about it, and you can't control what people will anonymously post about your business, so it's best to focus on the things you do have control over,” he says. “It's a dilemma, but it's a part of the business landscape all over. It's not something to waste your time living in fear of.”