Jun 082013
 

Craig Giesecke

One of my hobbies, I guess you could call it, is going online to take a look at the various reviews of various restaurants and other businesses I know on social media and review sites like Yelp!, Urbanspoon and TripAdvisor. It’s not that I use these guides so much for choosing where I want to go, since I’m entirely capable of determining that for myself based on personal experience. It’s just that some of the amateur reviews are so beautifully written (“the place has the ambiance of the Arizona Dept. of Corrections”),  while others bear witness to what can be the sheer cluelessness of the reviewer.

Having worked as a reviewer and having been reviewed on such sites and by professionals, I can tell you each of the sites has its good and bad points. It’s easy to trash a place anonymously or nearly so, meaning I write off some of the one-star reviews as being from angry former employees or whatnot. It’s also easy to heap praise on a place when a boy/girlfriend works there are when it signs your paycheck. With that in mind, I also toss some of the five-star missives that virtually anyplace gets or can post itself.

Every place in town gets a bad review from time to time. I find it helpful to set the site to work in chronological order, allowing me to determine if the place is tanking or if it’s a rising star. It also allows me to see if there are some consistent issues that keep coming up. If a restaurant started with good reviews, but those over the past few months have declined, it can indicate potential problems with staff and management. On the other hand, most places need a few months to find a groove or get the right team in place.  If early bad reviews are balanced by mostly good recent ones, there sound basis for optimism.

Sometimes, the reviewer him/herself is the issue. I see critiques saying something like, “our group included a vegan and two vegetarians and the server was NO help in accommodating their requests.” Well, honey, are you reviewing Sam’s Steak Barn? The sign out front says, “STEAK,” fergodsakes. The place is aimed at carnivores. Your review is invalid. Or, “we waited FORTY MINUTES for our food.” Really? In the French Quarter? On a Saturday night? During JazzFest? Again – invalid.

I’ll say here the absolute worst thing a diner can do, when they feel slighted, is to mention that if the place doesn’t provide satisfaction RIGHT NOW, the diner will GO ONLINE and TRASH THIS PLACE. We are no more impressed with you than Rick Blaine was with the German banker in “Casablanca.” Your cash is good at the bar, and you’re lucky that’s open to you.

Having been a professional reviewer and having my work reviewed on such sites and by professionals, I can say I don’t envy the folks who run them. It must be a difficult tightrope to allow unfettered public comment while also trying to mollify angry restaurant operators who feel they’re sometimes getting a raw deal. To their credit, each site allows managers who feel they’ve been unjustifiably wronged to make their case. Sometimes bad reviews are indeed taken down. But, generally, they’re allowed to stand.

The most glaring thing to me is the places that are consistently stuck with overall three-star reviews. In nearly every case, this is because the reviews are consistent in their dramatic inconsistency. Reviewers either LOVE the place or “I’ll never go back.” This means, in a five-star rating system, the best the business can do is average out with a three or slightly better. In most such instances, either the food is okay and the service is bad or vice-versa – and that’s been the situation for a series of months or over the course of a year.

So, overall, I give the social media review outlets three and a half stars –maybe four to TripAdvisor because its users seem to be a little more well-traveled and less likely to lash out after a bad experience. How often do you use these sites? Do you trust them?

Craig Giesecke has been a broadcaster and journalist for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the AP and UPI covering news, sports, politics, food and travel. He has been the owner of J’anita’s for five years, serving well-reviewed upscale bar food and other dishes. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.

  • Diogonese

    Interesting points. Never use such sites myself. I rely on word-of-mouth and “Hey, let’s give that place a shot.”

  • will_k2

    I pay no attention to amateur reviews until the reviewer demonstrates some qualifications. All it takes is one look at the comments stream that follows any local “top restaurants” article to realize that many of the people writing online reviews are the same people complaining that the list in not valid because Vincent’s / Andrea’s / insert other suburban restaurant is not in the top 5.

  • Mike Flood

    I do not use sites to judge the food ( I’m sure some people don’t enjoy the same food I do ), but I like to see if people have complained about it being unclean. I do like to see the menu and PRICES online.