Yelp – Do you trust it?

Back in the day (I’m not that old), you would try a restaurant, the food would disappoint and you would’ve wasted your time. If the food was good then you made the right choice and got your money’s worth. If your friends and family checked it out as well you may have had conversations about whether the food was good or not.

Then in 2004, Yelp was created. As a crowd-sourced review forum, Yelp can be viewed as a social media site that allows users to write reviews of businesses. Yelp’s platform provides reviews for businesses not only in the Restaurant category, but Home Services, Auto Services and other businesses like bars, gyms, and hair salons. For today’s focus, I’ll be discussing the impacts of reviews on restaurants.

Since 2004, the company has grown tremendously. As of December 31, 2018, 80% of searches on Yelp were done on a mobile device, meaning people are searching for reviews on the go and can also imply that people are writing reviews on the app vs. the actual website as well. Since its inception, 177 million reviews have been written on the platform, with 19% of the reviewed businesses in the Restaurants category.

Yelp is helpful and great to restaurants that receive good reviews and high star ratings. For example, Gong Cha, a boba tea place that opened last summer in Allston, MA has had great reviews and currently has a 4 star rating on Yelp: From personal experience, I’ve tried the chain once in China and thought it was absolutely terrible solely base on taste, but was unable to post a review as they do not leverage Yelp to make decisions there. Giving this place another try when it opened, my expectations were exceeded, but I did not give a Yelp review given that I drink boba tea quite often and feel that it is standard compared to the other places in the area. Others however, have written about the taste, experience, and service. These are all things that can impact one’s review of a business, and the reputation these businesses are at the mercy of their Yelp reviews.

One article: discussed how a food critic deemed a ramen shop to be one of his favorites in NYC, causing a huge surge in traffic to the small ramen shop, which ultimately negatively impacted the service and quality of the food because of the overwhelming popularity it received. The staff were not prepared and they were unable to deliver the exceptional service and taste that the food critic experienced alone. Restaurant owners and restaurateurs like mom and pop shops, have expressed fears over the years that people were writing fake reviews and purposely trying to bad mouth the restaurant for one reason or another. Interestingly enough, Yelp has faced several lawsuits on the claims that it extorted businesses into buying advertising products, with each of those cases being dismissed before reaching trial.

A HBS study: found that a one star increase in Yelp ratings led to a 5-9% increase in revenue, indicating that there was a correlation in higher rated restaurants making more money than other independent restaurants with lower ratings. What ultimately prompts someone to write a review on a restaurant? For me, it’s exceptional service and taste, leading me to write a review, hoping that it helps to drive business, so the next time I have a craving I know there is a restaurant that is delicious and worth my time revisiting. On the other hand, I’ll absolutely write a review if the service was awful and it did not meet my expectations at all. Ultimately, the reviews that someone writes can hurt or help a restaurant, but can all reviews be trusted? If this social platform can make or break a restaurant’s reputation just based off of star ratings and kind or harsh words, how do we decide which reviews to trust?

Yelp already has an automated filter algorithm that removes fake reviews based off of criteria:

So while mom and pop shops may have received bad rep or even closed down in the past, the algorithms that are in place today are meant to help identify fake reviews that are both bad and good. When I search for restaurants, I find myself looking for the lowest star ratings on the first page, especially if the majority of the reviews are 4-5 stars just so I can see for myself whether or not the low rating review is potentially fake or reflective of someone’s actual experience. I live and die by Yelp reviews and find it extremely helpful at the end of the day, but have taken risks in the past when I decided to try a lower rated restaurant just to see if what the majority of reviewers wrote were true. There were situations where I’ve been proven wrong, but others where I was shocked that a restaurant received an overall lower rating. Ultimately the platform wants to serve as a place where people can review businesses that are trustworthy enough for others to leverage before making a decision. Do you guys leverage Yelp when you’re wondering what the ratings and reviews are like for a restaurant or business? If so, what are you typically looking for? If not, is there something else you use instead?

With the way social media is now leveraged in businesses, messages can be interpreted in different ways that can positively or negatively affect the business. How do we assess what we can and can’t trust when it comes to social media posts for businesses today?


  1. jlrose03 · ·

    Love this excerpt on Yelp. For the most part, it is fair to say that most people trust Yelp and use it exactly for reviews and determining if a restaurant or service is good or not. There have been other platforms like FourSquare that provide similar feedback or rating service. However, Yelp from my view has been the market leader in this category for quite some time. I have yet to have a negative experience from a rated restaurant that I have been to. The best way to assess and trust is simple. I think it is from actual physical or personal experience. Those days may seem to be gone but again, aren’t they the most accurate?

  2. shannonbenoit5 · ·

    Loved this. I am for sure guilty of often using Yelp and other sites to investigate restaurants before I go to them, although I do not have an account myself and have never written my own review. It is good to hear that they filter reviews that are likely false, as I can definitely see how that can unjustly positively or negatively effect their business. I think Yelp is great is helping me to decide where I want to eat, but I also recognize that eating is an individual experience and everyone has their own opinions about what kind of food they do and do not like. For this reason, I often find myself looking for opinions on experience and service more so than the food itself, as I feel like those are less individualized opinions.

  3. Olivia Crowley · ·

    I think a phenomenon that we definitely see now is that individuals look to restaurants’ Instagram accounts to check out how the food looks before trying it. For me, I know most of the places that I choose to try for the first time are found via what one might call ‘food influencers’ or Instagram stories from friends and family. I have found myself resorting to Google and/or Yelp less and less. It’s not necessarily that I don’t trust the reviews, I think it’s just that I have more trust in those who I have previously chosen to follow in social media. I do think that older generations pay a lot more attention to the number of stars certain restaurants have acquired, but at the same time, I think that these are also the types of individuals who are much more risk-averse and have a harder time trying new places.

  4. One of my favorite features on Yelp is when restaurants reply to poor reviews and call out the posters for misrepresenting their experiences. For example, I saw one recently where a reviewer stated that they had a terrible experience due to long wait times and rude service from the restaurant. The owner then responded and clarified that this was a party that showed up without half of its members, they showed up early, and they were extremely drunk and rude to the staff upon arrival. I think it is great that places have the ability to address reviews (both good and bad) and this is one way to alleviate the issue of malicious reviews posted to Yelp.

  5. mckeanlindsay · ·

    I think it’s also important to keep in mind that a lot of consumer platforms that provide reviews also provide credibility to people who post the most. For example, Google Maps has a review system that allows you to earn points based on your contributions to the platform. By contributing a certain amount, you are able to become a “local guide”, and your comments and reviews will be more prioritized on a user’s feed. I think platforms that provide these kinds of rating systems are more reliable because they make an effort to ensure the reviewer is reliable in some way. However, platforms that don’t offer this are a little bit more vague on who can be trusted. I also always have an issue with the “star” rating system. What is 4-stars to one person could be 3-stars or 5-stars to another. It’s very subjective and doesn’t as accurately depict the reviewers experience as a lengthy text contribution does.

  6. Great thought provoking post! I think the review system on digital platform serves a great purpose of helping individuals prioritize certain restaurants or attractions over others. However, considering that reviews are arbitrary and subject to response bias, I feel this method of ranking/ordering has become a bit outdated and overly trusted. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the coming years, companies like Yelp and Uber developed an entirely different way of leaving reviews ensuring that they are indeed fair and just. In particular, it will be interesting to see how they overcome this response bias. I personally have always used reviews as a guideline, or support, for my consumer decisions. However, I know many more who depend solely on the stars or ranking of a restaurant or attraction to make their decision whether or not to spend there time or money there. Lindsay’s comment seems to clarify that Yelp has a system in line with what I’m saying to reduce the response bias. I’d be interested to see how significantly that helps the rating accuracy, and how others are rated, ideally dynamically.

  7. Great post! To me, one of the most interesting aspects of Yelp is not necessarily how accurate it is, but how compelling the simplicity and obviousness of its model is for other spaces. Since Yelp was founded, waves of similar (or, arguably, copycat) review sites and businesses have sprung up in fields very far away from restaurants and entertainment. Some, like Angie’s List or Thumbtack, are logical and useful extensions of the Yelp idea, but others, like Vitals (Yelp for doctors and medical facilities) or even Avvo (Yelp for lawyers) seem to come with much higher stakes should reviews/crowd opinion veer to much to the positive or negative.

  8. I trust it but take it with a grain of salt. I’m wary of manipulation. Fun fact, though, Mike Luca (who wrote the HBS paper) was a doctoral student at BC before joining the faculty at Harvard.

  9. cgriffith418 · ·

    I’ve only posted a Yelp review a few times, but I have to admit I’ve only been driven to write one based on a bad experience. I think this a common problem on Yelp — people are more likely to post when they’re upset about something, so there ends up being a disproportionate number of negative reviews, which leads some companies to write fake positive reviews to balance it out. I’m glad to hear about the review system; that would definitely help me trust Yelp more. I typically go to other platforms, like The Infatuation, because I’d rather listen to experts knowing there’s a chance they could have ulterior motives (paid good reviews, a single person’s bias, etc) than a larger number of people who are less informed. I think Yelp will continue to be one source of information to draw from when making a decision, among others, but I think very few people use it as their sole decision aide.

  10. debhan10 · ·

    It’s interesting how you mentioned the negative effects of positive Yelp reviews for certain restaurants. I’ve never quite thought of it that way, but I definitely can understand why that would happen. Once restaurants become popularized, the demand surge is overwhelming and it can easily compromise the quality and integrity of the restaurant. I personally am an avid user of Yelp. I use it all the time, especially if I’m in a new area, to scope out what to eat for my next meal. I put a lot of trust in Yelp, because I value other people’s opinions and experiences very much. I try to read at least 10 reviews before making a decision, however, to ensure that I’m not basing my decision off of one very biased review. I didn’t know that Yelp had a specific filter algorithm to remove fake reviews, and I think it’s relieving to know that it exists. Also, one feature that I love using in Yelp is the ability to look at photos of the food and atmosphere of the restaurant. Whenever I’m planning an event, it’s helpful to choose which restaurant to go to based on its atmosphere and interior design to better match the occasion. And if I’m already at the restaurant, I look at photos on Yelp to help me choose which menu item to order. I like to know what I’m getting myself into before I commit to something, and I’m not much of a risk taker, so Yelp really helps me in that way. Pictures speak a thousand words, and you can’t lie with a photo! Great blog post!

  11. Like all digital things these days, I think you need to apply your own personal filter to asses whether you trust the information or not. Like Amazon reviews or Glassdoor, reading several reviews and looking for subtleties in the language, grammar and syntax I think you can make good judgments on what to trust. What was most interesting here was that the star rating on yelp equated to more income for businesses. With money on the line, I am not shocked that so much fraud is committed.

  12. I personally love yelp and use it all the time, but I can see how it could result in mom and pop shops being overwhelmed with new business. I have also been on email lists where a specific store or shop has emailed me saying that they have recently received bad yelp reviews and if I, a loyal customer, would write about my experience. The emails also cite that Yelp has removed some of the good reviews skewing the star ratings. It is interesting to think that a company’s yelp page could make or break it. The reviews are no longer based on critics, but to the whims of different customer’s experiences. It also gives a lot of weight to service, which was not normally a main factor in critic’s reviews.

  13. merrimju · ·

    I’m going to pre-empt this reply by saying that I worked at Yelp for almost 2 years back in 2013. I can say without a shred of a doubt that you cannot buy higher ratings on Yelp and that they do have systems in place that track IP addresses and user tendencies to try to discern if a review could be from a competitor. That said there is no sure fire way to distinguish a fake from real review and sadly this is the reality that all small businesses face. So I love your strategy of sorting reviews based on lowest ratings to see whether they seem fake or something that should actually be taken into account!

  14. kateu19 · ·

    While I’ve never actually written a Yelp review, I use it all the time – besides looking for new restaurants, I’ll often use to find nail salons or dry cleaners when I’ve moved to a new neighborhood. I always look at the bad reviews first, and try to get a sense of whether or not they are bad enough to keep me away – I don’t mind if the fluff & fold place around the corner loses a sock or two, but I do mind if they dry clean my silk shirt and it comes back stained. That being said, I do take the reviews with a grain of salt – I know that I tend to give my opinion about something when my experience is wonderful/terrible, and I assume others do the same.

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