Yelp – Are You Ready for This?

Once again I find myself discussing the potential negative impact Yelp has had and continues to have as it relates to its anonymous online restaurant reviews.

To the best of my knowledge, just one state has ruled against Yelp in this matter and that is Virginia. Yelp is appealing that decision.

Why am I running the risk of being redundant? Because it has come to my attention, thanks to a story titled “Trendinista: Yelp reviews could trigger health inspections.” It went on to say: “Wording found in an anonymous online review may soon determine how frequently local health officials inspect your restaurant.” About five months ago I wrote about a similar story on this very subject. An article which appeared in The New York Times, written by Maria Newman, reads: “After a particularly bad restaurant meal, you may be moved to post a review on the website Yelp, warning other diners. But now someone else is listening in: New York City health officials, who may track you down if you complain that the meal made you sick.” She also wrote that the city’s Department of Health and Hygiene had completed a pilot project using Yelp reviews to help find unreported outbreaks of foodborne illness.

While one is hesitant about discussing foodborne illness, it does happen. Traditionally, health officials hear about potential poisonings from doctors’ reports and phone calls from people who say they got sick. In New York City, about 3,000 people per year complain to the city’s 311 service hotline. Of these calls, only about one percent pan out and lead to a cluster of illnesses, according to a story by Mike Stobbe of The Associated Press.

The health department got the idea of using Yelp after seeing chatter that helped with a month-long restaurant investigation in 2011. “Officials reached out to Yelp, and the website agreed to help with a pilot project,” said the department’s Dr. Sharon Balter. Investigators focused on illnesses that occurred between 12 and 36 hours after a meal—the time frame for most symptoms of food poisoning to surface.

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These next comments by Dr. Balter are significant. “Most people assume they got sick from the last place they ate, but that’s not always the case,” she said. “Most of the eating-out public are not aware of this.”

The recent Restaurant Hospitality article contains some information heretofore not available—at least not to this writer—which confirms the Virginia high court’s prohibiting Yelp from publishing anonymous reviews, and why such reviews should not be allowed nationally, nor for any purpose, to be used by a government agency.

The following is the rationale of two men very familiar with Yelp: Harvard Business School professor Michael Luca and Yelp director of public policy, Luther Lowe. “Yelp has amassed about 67 million reviews in the last decade. So it is logical to think that these platforms could transform hygiene awareness too—after all, people who contribute to review sites focus on some of the same things inspectors look for.”

The next observation is even more striking. “It seems like a good approach, assuming Yelp reviews are a reliable and unbiased source of valid information about restaurants.” Luca himself has previously argued that they aren’t. Sixteen percent of Yelp reviews are fraudulent, he reports in a research paper, “Fake It Till You Make It: Reputation, Competition and Yelp.” “When restaurants face increased competition, they become more likely to receive unfavorable fake reviews,” he notes.

But even knowing that one in six reviews is bogus, Luca and Lowe still think Yelp is a treasure trove of valuable data waiting to be mined. They say tapping into consumer review sites is one method which government agencies can use to coerce restaurants into keeping their premises clean.

How can anyone possibly suggest that information which could be fraudulent and submitted anonymously, be published for public viewing and used, possibly by a government agency, for enforcement purposes? What are they thinking?

Finally, when anyone suggests that a $600 billion industry should be exposed to this kind of irresponsible treatment, that case most assuredly belongs before the courts.

I leave you with this: The official rate of phony reviews is acknowledged by Yelp to be one out of six. That one could be you.