Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Your Thoughts on Yelp

During the spring when we took a short family trip to San Francisco, we needed a quick breakfast one morning. We didn't know much about the city, so we consulted yelp.com for help. Luckily, it found us an inexpensive mom-and-pop cafe right around the corner that rated 4 stars, and had fairly positive reviews about the coffee, pastries, and friendly service. Sounded like what we needed for a low-key start to the day. Of course, like everything on yelp, there were a couple of disgruntled reviews, but I tend to filter out the ones that sound like they're from the kind of person that can never be satisfied.

The cafe we chose was pathetic. Flavorless coffee, crumbly dry baked goods, dingy atmosphere -- we would have been better off at Starbucks. It got me thinking that -- while yelp might be useful for getting some crowdsourced opinions about places you haven't been in your hometown -- it's not trustworthy enough to guide you during the priceless days of a vacation.

Search yelp for "beer bar" in Portland, then sort by "highest rated". It's a mixed bag: sure, there's Bailey's at #2, but apparently the #1 rated beer bar -- Leisure Public House -- has 5 beer taps. Then there are a couple of wine bars listed, followed by Ground Kontrol (!) and Beermongers; Hop and Vine shows up at #10. OK, click on the "Pubs" category link that's attached to Bailey's, and the list starts to look a little more reasonable, except that Leisure is still #1, and three run-of-the-mill McMenamins -- not even the best McMenamins pubs in town -- get onto the list well ahead of Horse Brass at #10.

I conclude that yelp is not at all useful for finding the real attractions in an area. It might be useful if you knew you were going to choose between two or three specific places, and you could get a few quick opinions on those.

So I ask you, what are your thoughts on yelp? Anyone want to defend it? Or tell me how to use it properly?


  1. Ever since Yelp got busted trying to extort business owners in exchange for scrubbing negative reviews and promoting higher-rated ones, I have never trusted them again.



  2. When I search for 'beer bar' (two words, no quotation marks), I get Bailey's, Saraveza, Hop&Vine, Horse Brass, Journeys, M Bar, Roscoes, Concordia, Tugboat, Ground Kontrol. When I search for '"beer bar"' (with quotes), it's fairly similar, but Apex pops into #1 and Prost and the Arlene Schnitzer (wtf?) also make the top 10. So, I have no explanation for why you are seeing Leisure.

    As for the overall value of Yelp, I've found it fairly useful in my semi-regular travel to New York. Certainly better than nothing. But, there's definitely a process of learning the types of people who review places in a given town and figuring out how to read between the lines to find the places you will actually like.

  3. I can tell you that as a business owner, yelp is your best friend and your worst enemy. The free service is nice, especially if customers like you, and you haven't gotten under your competition's skin enough for them to leave vindictive reviews. My shop has about 11 reviews right now, and a 5-star rating, and Yelp drives a lot of traffic to my website.

    The negatives are that yelp as a business really tries to prey on small business. They're very aggressive to get businesses to upgrade to pay accounts, they cost a lot of money, there is no trial period, and the contracts are 12 month commitments (6 months if you want to pay even more for the package), they're very misleading about what they offer, and they use a lot of scare tactics to get you to upgrade.

    The order of reviews is inaccurate because yelp automatically bumps paid accounts up to the top of the lists, moves negative reviews to the second page, or even allows business owners to get them wiped off.

    The extortion stuff is true. Scary too. As a small business owner without much of a budget for marketing, yelp reviews are very important, and getting some bad reviews mysteriously after you turn down a sales rep's pitch for the paid upgrade is a big concern. The rep that keeps harassing me right now is getting a little stand-offish about my resistance to her attempts to hook me, so I'm a little uneasy right now. Hopefully the exposure of the extortion and the pending litigation have them operating a little more fairly right now. We'll see.

  4. I should add that as a consumer, I use yelp all the time and find it very valuable. I don't take the order of the listings seriously, and I read all the reviews to form an opinion on my own about the business instead of taking yelp's word for it. I also usually move on from yelp to the companies website for more info before I make a choice. Or if it's a beer place in another city, I'll then move to beerfly, etc... but yelp is a great place to start.

  5. Sally and I were recently talking about this--just after we had gone to EAT, which got 3.5 stars but knocked our socks off. Turns out a few people had had poor service. But one guy went wild over the fact that there were sleeves of saltines at the table. He was beside himself with outrage. Sally observed: I hate the commons; give me an expert anytime.

    There's some truth to it.

  6. I use Yelp quite a bit when planning hikes in unfamiliar areas, but only for the logistical info such as address, hours, and website.

    I rarely read, and never heed the reviews on Yelp. You just can't be sure of their motivations, positive or negative. I prefer to get recommendations from friends -- or friendly strangers at the pub -- in person. I take that word of mouth a lot more to heart.

  7. I am with Urban Beer Hiker - I mostly use Yelp for the logistical information. I will occasionally read the reviews but I put more stock in other website recommendations. If I have planned ahead, I find chowhound.com to be a valuable resource for finding great food and beer. The Beer Advocate beer guides for individual cities are also very helpful.

  8. OK, we have two votes for "logistics only", one "better than nothing", one "start with yelp but do more research", one "give me an expert". Common sense stuff, I guess.

    And the tales of strong-arm tactics are disturbing, but I suppose there's more danger from competitors than from Yelp, as Jeff noted.

  9. I use yelp for specific restaurant reviews, not its searches. I read the reviews to get a consensus, as many reviews are tainted by a server or particular incident, not necessarily the food or drink. I am finding that new restaurants try to generate positive buzz with yelp reviews, so I tend to see if there is a date concentration of reviews. Yelp is great for getting phone numbers and website information, though.

  10. Looks like Yelp is taking a page from the Better Business Bureau with all their strong arm tactics. I can't stand the crooked nature of these setups. I pretty much stopped using it after reading about that.

  11. I'm a bit late to this party, but I have to say your post and the comments are damn useful to me. I'm currently on the countdown to my first visit to Portland, in early November, and I've been relentlessly reading bar reviews on Yelp based on proximity to my accommodation. I have a handful I want to visit, but it's interesting to get a non-Yelp prospective. I shall take what I read there with a grain of salt!

  12. Hey Adrian,

    If you're looking for beer bars or breweries in particular, I think beer fly and beer advocate forums are a great resource. There are tons of threads from people looking for advice on where to go and what to do on there.

  13. Adrian, here's the link to Beer Fly that PedXer mentioned. Definitely a good resource. Can't remember if you have to sign up for an account first.

    Since you mentioned "proximity", of course beermapping.com is useful. It will even do custom proximity maps -- say, everything within one mile of a certain pub. Locally, another good drinking resource is Bar Fly, which doesn't focus just on beer.


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