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The pitfall of social media: the Yelp Conundrum


We all know that Yelp isn’t entirely trustworthy (what, you thought it was?).  Any business, product or service that wants great reviews can simply ask all their friends and relatives to weigh in with a good word. Seems you can even outsource glowing reviews from other businesses, in exchange for a little mutual backslapping.

“As many as 4 out of 10 online reviews are phony or biased in some way,” according to a professor cited in the above article. But even though you and I, an educated public, instinctively or objectively know that Yelp reviews may be biased, we listen to them anyway, in a conscious act of self-persuasion, because the concept of “peer reviewing” is so powerful. We figure that, scattered amidst the bias, are golden nuggets of truth.

Peer reviewing, also known as word-of-mouth, always has been a powerful recommender. It’s seemingly the opposite of authority recommending, wherein a specialist or expert (that would be people like me, in the world of wine) tells other people what’s good, what sucks, and everything inbetween. These days, of course, the authority of experts is on the decline, maybe justifiably. The power of peers has seen its ultimate expression on the Internet, and specifically in what’s been dubbed “social media,” wherein you, me, and that gal behind the tree all have equal opportunity to opine, and then publish our opinions to–ta da!–the entire world. The Internet becomes the Great Leveler, diminishing the power of so-called experts, heightening that of novices and ordinary people.

That’s good. Every advancement in publishing technology brings the human race a step upward on the ladder of progress and enlightenment. The invention of movable type helped usher in the Renaissance from the dismal depths of the Dark Ages, when religious superstition dominated Europe and the church controlled publishing, censoring everything that did not conform to doctrine. But just as movable type led to problems (the rise of mass media, for example, which can be owned by corporations with biases), one has to point out the limitations of the Internet.

The problem with this ease of instant universal publishing is precisely what we can now call the Yelp Conundrum: just as you can’t believe everything you read on Yelp, you can’t believe everything you read in social media. More than that: Even if you know that you can’t believe everything you read in social media, you don’t know exactly what’s accurate and what isn’t. It’s sort of like Doublethink, in Orwell’s 1984. Any word can mean whatever the speaker or writer intends it to mean. Dictionaries are constantly in a state of revision to keep up with the shifting meaning of words. The written word, in 1984, no longer has value as a means of the transmission of truth. Instead, it becomes either a form of entertainment, or a mechanism to sell something, whether it be a product or government-sanctioned idea. The only way to really know what the written word means, in 1984, is to understand the context. Unfortunately, in that totalitarian dictatorship, it’s impossible to know the context of anything.

Context is similarly lacking in today’s social media reviews and analyses of wine. Another word for context is transparency. If a claim is transparent, then it cannot be “phony or biased in some way,” as 4 in 10 Yelp reviews are. Or, more correctly: it may be biased, but it is transparently biased, so that the reader is armed with sufficient information to ignore it.

Each form of social media has different ways to game the system. Yelp’s are perhaps the most obvious; but everything can be rigged. Blogs may be corrupted by the “mommy blog” phenomenon whereby the blogger is paid (secretly) to hawk certain products or services. Twitter is entirely capable of being hijacked by special interests, to judge by my feed, which routinely includes tweets by wineries touting their own stuff.

Until it’s possible to know who’s getting what, who’s in whose pocket, who’s simply ignorant, and who’s transmitting whatever message their controllers want them to, social media should be viewed with skepticism by wine consumers seeking truthful information. What is needed is an absolute way for the consumer to know the context of the information he or she receives. What is needed is transparency. But transparency is exactly what seems impossible to confirm on the Internet. The obviously phony emails from Nigerian widows should warn us all to beware the Internet’s pitfalls. But self-persuasion, or self-hypnosis, keeps us believing we can avoid them, ourselves.

  1. Yelp lost a ton of credibility in the Sacramento region back in May when a yelper visting the new Red Rabbit Kitchen claimed to have gotten food poisoning but was willing to “Let it go” if co-owner Sonny Mayugba comped him a $100 gift card.

    Seriously, if I got food poisoning anywhere I doubt a gift would bring me back. This was a simple case of extortion.

    Other area restaurants have had similar “shakedowns”.

    Another problem with Yelp is that half the reviewers wouldn’t know Kobe Beef from kangaroo.
    Whether it’s wine or food or anything else under the sun, I’ll take my tips from the pros or from people whose taste I trust, not some anonyblogger with an agenda.

  2. Steve – your central tenet about not believing everything that’s crowd-sourced without applying some careful thought to it is true, but I think you confuse some things about twitter and about context.

    Context and transparency aren’t the same necessarily. Now, the context of WHY and BY WHOM the reviews are written are what I think you’re talking about here, but that’s probably not the context that most people are considering when reading a review (they’re considering the context of the reviewer’s experience, such as “I was on my honeymoon and we stayed at this hotel and it had bedbugs”).

    Regarding twitter, a winery touting its own stuff on its own feed is not a special interest, it’s a winery trying to apply old-style push-marketing in the wrong place/format.

    I personally fine crowd-sourcing very useful, not because it’s perfect but because the for-pay, hidden-agenda, etc. stuff is the vast, vast minority of the feedback. On the whole, most people are out to share their experiences, not screw over one another or make a quick buck.

  3. I had the same problem recently when checking consumer responses to an item I was wanting to purchase from Amazon. There were about a dozen short, very positive reviews by people who had never reviewed anything before. Fortunately several others pointed this out. Apparently the maker of the product encouraged employees or friends to post the comments. But these are usually the exceptions. Yelp posts are useful to me if there are a large number of them and it is for something like a restaurant in other than my own town. Ditto motels. Winery reviews are useless, many of the posters admitting they don’t even like wine and most of the rest giving a rating on the basis of how pleasant they found the decor or whether the host smiled frequently enough. One area that is especially helpful to me, though, is consumer reviews of Internet businesses. I prefer to purchase locally but often can’t locate an item. If I am considering a purchase from a company I’ve never dealt with, I’ll check out the consumer reviews and BBB rating.

  4. Thanks for weighing in, 1WineDude. I was pretty sure I’d hear from you.

  5. I have another aspect. My wife runs the user experience product teams at eBay and she along with another friend who is a researcher at Stanford have insights in “trust” in social media. The problem is when the user has very little invested then “trust” factor is low (good or bad). The reality is user investment increases trust. A basic investment is “money”. I there is money in the equation trust increases dramatically. eBay is based on a transaction and fees do trust in those reviews is higher but something like “Angie’s List” where members pay just to have access to recommendations the “trust” factor increases even more. When it’s free (like Yelp) then the value of the reviews is very low and more often than not doesn’t correlate to reality.

    I never asked my Stanford buddy about Twitter reviews but it’s an interesting thought. My guess, based on other discussions is that trust is low on Twitter.

    Now, is a blog trustworthy? It is more trust worthy than many think as the author has a BIG investment in time into the blog so it would be consistent that trust is higher. The hypothesis hasn’t been tested but it would stand to reason.

  6. When I look at a Yelp review I only credit reviews from reviewers with 100+ reviews all the 10-30 review types are not worth it especially if they have 20 reviews and 150 “friends”. Also you can follow a reviewer you trust as a fan and one review of food poisoning from an out of towner could be flagged and dumped.

    I don’t say to trust Yelp but they have the best database for restaurants and services in many towns with the weblinks and maps to find places. Buyer beware as in anything.

  7. Bob Arctor says:

    A few months ago I gave a 5-star review on Yelp for the Scanner Darkley Lounge in SF because of the decadent ambience, great wines, and interesting crowd.

    The other day, I was looking for an unusual place to go late night with friends and I read the 5-star review on Yelp for Scanner Darkley Lounge. The 5-star review was all about decadent ambience and interesting people there.

    So we went to the Scanner Darkley Lounge after midnight on a Saturday night and the ambience was bizarre, lurid, threatening, the wines were great, but the crowd was malevolent. I disagree with the 5-star review for the Scanner Darkley Lounge and I want to warn others about Yelp. The whole thing is a little freaky.

  8. I’ve had good luck with Trip Advisor for oversess travel. You get a pretty good idea of the review’s experience and taste from what they say. And if there is a question of authenticiy, you can look at other reviews they have done. Like a point score in wine,a numerical rating and just a few words doesn’t help much. I basically ignore those and look for a detailed review.

    In a recent trip to Asia the day after dining at Rambagh Palace I was introduced to the owner over drinks.(He popped a bottle of an Indian Syrah made by M.Rolland that was very tasty.) He is a five star hotelier who daily reads, takes seriously, and responds to every review on Trip Advisor. No wonder his place he is top rated in Jaipur, if not the world.

    I’ve never actually used Yelp, though I have checked out reviews on the site of restaurants I know. It seems much the same, you look for someone who knows fine dining, can express themselves, and writes several reviews. You can find knowledgeable, experienced foodies. In America, particularly if you are in the wine industry, you know a foodie or someone who is “in the know” in almost every city in the country, so a quick phone call is much more reliable.

    Trip Advisor 94 points
    Yelp 91 points

  9. Roger King says:

    It is really pretty simple, due diligence is ultimately a personal responsibility. Buyer beware has always been a sub set of that, regardless of where information is coming from. Only through outcome can you learn to trust referral, again regardless of source.


  1. NEWS FETCH – JULY 18, 2012 | Wine Industry Insight - [...] The pitfall of social media: the Yelp Conundrum [...]

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