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Jul 1, 2020

Want Unverified and Unqualified Reviews? Yelp Yourself!

A website can singlehandedly destroy small business in America

By Ed Goldman

If you get food poisoning from what you ate in a restaurant, you should get medical help, let the owner know as soon as possible and, if nothing is done, contact your county health department.

If you simply don’t like the service or food you received at a restaurant, don’t go there again. And if you’re in an adamant mood, tell your friends not to go there, either. But whatever you do, don’t post a damning review on Yelp.

Yelp, as I’m sure you know, runs the crowd-sourcing/neurotic-luring website founded 16 years ago whose comments from unqualified or indignant critics can ruin small businesses almost overnight, and isn’t exactly monitored for accuracy or even conspiracy. 

”Conspiracy” isn’t too harsh a word, even though when we hear it, our minds usually develop visions of grassy knolls, black-leather-jacketed Russians, cyber-hackers and entire planets plotting our downfall. 

But a conspiracy also takes place when four people get a lousy dinner somewhere, then decide they’ll each post an individual nasty review. In this, the Disinformation Age—in which the president can blast journalists for “fake news” yet not get through so much as a clause without lying or preening—four people’s condemnations can sound like a groundswell of discontent.

If you’ve ever contradicted a political rant on Facebook, you know whereof I speak. Suddenly, you’ve unleashed a courageous mob of virtual-torch bearers yelling everything from “Get the monster!” to “Does anyone have a good fajita recipe?” (Which is to say, the high dudgeons don’t usually last long—though I always expect an FB “Friend” to warn me if I’ve let loose with a particularly churlish response, “Better be careful about starting up your computer tomorrow, if you get what I’m sayin.’”)

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Yelp has become the go-to vehicle for town whiners. A gluttonous couple I know who consider themselves gourmets (and, um, aren’t—just gluttons) feel that the world is entitled to their opinions. They’ve done a small bit of traveling in their lives, which makes them even more dangerous. They once dissed a local Mexican restaurant’s enchiladas for not being “authentic” because, after all, they once ate “authentic” enchiladas on a three-day trip to Chihuahua, where they were thinking of buying a retirement home. When I phoned the couple to point out that the restaurant’s owners, three sisters, are, in fact, from Chihuahua, (this is a true story), you could hear grillos on their end of the conversation. (“Grillos” are crickets. Now I’m just showing off.)

So: Why have so many people decided they’re restaurant critics? I never care one way or the other what people post about chain restaurants, Hollywood movies, chain department stores and coffee shops or recordings. I figure the big companies can absorb or counter the barbs. Many even go so far as to hire reputation-management consultants to flood the internet with paid-for, positive reviews. (These consultants really do exist.)

The relative stupidity of using Yelp as a measure of public opinion isn’t new and isn’t confined to small business or small minds. 

In 1978, Jane Turczyn was a reporter and occasional weekend anchor for KCRA-TV News. On the air, her Polish surname was spelled “Turzin” to accommodate what the station must have felt was a mass audience of uneducable, provincial viewers who’d never learn to pronounce her name—even though they had no reason to. She said it aloud at the end of each of her reports. 

An ectopic pregnancy caused Turczyn to miss work for several weeks. During that time, she recovered, got a new hairdo to lift her spirits and married the likes of me, taking my last name (and breaking the hearts of some viewers in the process). 

The general manager, who has since moved on to that great newsroom in the sky, called her into his office on her third day back. “We had two calls objecting to your new hairstyle,” said the GM, “so get rid of it.” In Jane’s retelling, she tried to explain what a “perm” was, and how she would neither be able (nor willing) to get rid of it, and certainly not immediately. Then the guy said, “Okay, then, here’s something else. What’s with calling yourself ‘Jane Goldman’ all of a sudden? We’re not exactly courting Jews here.”

Let me repeat, the station had received precisely two calls about Jane’s coif—and either one or none about her name change. The GM just had “a feeling about this kind of thing,” he told her. That feeling is called antisemitism, but hey, we’re almost out of time and I have a song for you.

With apologies to the Beatles, and to the tune of the plaintive “Help!”:

When I was younger, so much younger than today/
I never needed Yelp to help me find a good café/
Those days have never left, I haven’t lost my voice/
I know that I/
Don’t need some guy/
Or gal to make my choice.

Yelp me if you can and make it solemn
But I’ll still keep writing this thrice-weekly column
Yelp, you wicked inefficient elf.
And then please, oh please, go Yelp yourself.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).