Thursday, August 24, 2006

Where Everyone Is a Critic

By Chris Gaither
Times Staff Writer

8:01 PM PDT, August 24, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO — Sorry, the hot dog vendor said, no more veggie dogs. Then, as a disappointed Monica Lee ordered fries instead, his gaze drifted south and settled on her chest.

Awkward pause.

"I'm scared of you guys," he said finally, pointing to Lee's olive-green lapel pin for, a website on which Bay Area hipsters post reviews of hot dog stands, five-star restaurants, corner bars and neighborhood hardware stores.

A few good words on Yelp can make cash registers ring. Enough dings — like, say, no veggie dogs or a rude waitress — can put a serious dent in business. Although the Internet is blamed for debasing public discourse with anonymous and poorly punctuated tirades, the amateur reviews posted on Yelp may be helping restore gentility and customer service to businesses all over town.

"It's something of a remedy for the anonymity of the city," said UCLA Professor David Halle, director of the university's LeRoy Neiman Center for the Study of American Society and Culture.

Cities are full of people who frequent particular places, such as restaurants, health clubs and museums, Halle said, but they rarely interact with each other. Websites such as Yelp enable them to build common-interest communities.

"It is my way of really listening to the customers, for better or worse," said Fatt Dog co-owner Caesar Chu, who checks Yelp daily. Employees such as the one who helped Lee at the Fatt Dog in the financial district here know, Chu said, that "if I ever see anything bad on there, I'm going to come in and yell at them."

Chu and other business owners are using Yelp to win back disgruntled customers and turn fans into online promoters. The wrong response to negative reviews can trigger a backlash and stain the record of a business: Reviews are collected on the website's company profile pages, which often appear at or near the top of search-engine results for Bay Area businesses.

Started by two young veterans of online payment service PayPal, Yelp has been described as Zagat Survey meets MySpace. Unlike the anonymous reviewers common to the Internet, self-appointed "Yelpers" create detailed profile pages of their own with their first names, photographs, interests and previous reviews so reviewers can bond over their favorites and readers can decide who's worth trusting.

"No longer is each customer interaction a one-off interaction," said Ken Doctor, a media analyst at Outsell Inc. "Any customer who has a great or horrible experience now has, as soon as they walk out the door, a megaphone to tell the word they had a great or horrible experience, fairly or unfairly."

San Francisco-based Yelp, which makes money selling ads to businesses, is trying to market the service outside of its hometown, in such major cities as Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Seattle and New York. The start-up, which doesn't disclose its finances, faces competition from Internet giants such as Yahoo Inc. and Google Inc., as well as start-ups including Judy's Book, which also features amateur-written reviews. It's unclear whether Yelp will catch on elsewhere.

Although Web communities live online, the cities where they start can set their tone. MySpace, the social networking site, took its party-animal, you're-only-as-good-as-your-connections attitude from Los Angeles. Craigslist, the online classified ad site, rode San Francisco's communal vibe to become a nationwide success.

Yelp, too, was shaped by San Francisco — a small city with distinctive neighborhoods, a vibrant restaurant and bar scene and tech-savvy residents — and the company's marketers have helped spread the word by hosting parties in some of their favorite joints.

"MySpace proved that the L.A. feeling is portable," Yelp Chairman Max Levchin said. "Yelp has a very distinctive voice. The danger is, is it just San Francisco that's like that? The hope is you can export the DNA of Yelp."

In San Francisco, at least, business owners are taking notice.

"It's changed the way I run my business because I can get feedback right away," said chef Ola Fendert, who brings printed Yelp reviews to staff meetings at his restaurant and bar, Oola. "You used to find out too late, when your business is slowing down. Now it's almost instant: Something happened, you see it on Yelp the next day and you can fix it."

Not all business owners are fans. Some have written acerbic messages scolding Yelpers or threatening lawsuits. They've demanded, unsuccessfully, that Yelp executives remove critical reviews. And some have tried to game the system by enlisting friends and family to review their businesses — a strategy made more difficult by the way Yelp's computer program favors longtime contributors when ranking the list of reviews for a particular business. When caught using these tactics, businesses face the wrath of Yelpers' sharp keyboards.

PayPal alumni Jeremy Stoppelman, 28, and Russel Simmons, 27, founded Yelp in 2004. It began as an e-mail service for asking friends to recommend restaurants and other local businesses, but they quickly discovered that Yelp's members were writing reviews regardless of whether their friends requested them. They switched gears and, in February 2005, launched a new version of the site focused on open reviews.

For a decade, Web surfers have been able to review books on, sellers on EBay and hotels on a number of travel sites. More recently, sites such as Google Local and Yahoo Local have listed small businesses and invited users to review them.

But what sets Yelp apart is the sheer number of reviews (hundreds for popular San Francisco businesses) and its use of social-networking features like those on MySpace. Those features enable users to see all the reviews of a business and then, when they find a particular reviewer they like, to link to all reviews by that person. It creates an interlocking chain of people and places that can lead users to unexpected finds.

Some 627,000 Web surfers across the country visited Yelp in June, according to ComScore Media Metrix, making traffic on the site tiny when compared with the tens of millions of visitors regularly received by many of the Web's most popular destinations. But Yelp's traffic has nearly tripled since February, thanks in part to its launch in more cities, and some of its reviewers contribute to the site with almost religious fervor.

Kevin Simpson, 44, who works in the software industry, stumbled across Yelp during a Google search for a local business. He said he had long dismissed sites such as Citysearch, which blends professional and amateur reviews, because the amateur reviews seemed to be written by the business owners or "someone with an ax to grind."

But Yelp reviews struck him as sincere.

He wrote his first about a Greek restaurant, Kokkari Estiatorio — "I want to be laid to rest in a really large Kokkari moussaka," it began — and he became obsessed, especially as Yelpers began showering him with positive feedback. The site combined several of his favorite pastimes, including dining out and sharing his thoughts.

"I'm opinionated, and I like to make people laugh and think," Simpson said. "The Web has always been a place to express yourself politically and perhaps artistically, but a place on the Web like Yelp gives you a way to express yourself creatively about the little things that actually matter a lot to the texture, I guess, of everyday life."

Vowing to supplant "Joan S." in Redondo Beach as the most prolific reviewer, he wrote 990 reviews — of businesses across the country — from April to August in 2005. Simpson would try new eateries with friends, then race them home to see who could write the first Yelp review.

He took a hiatus after breaking 1,000, then returned and wrote 310 more. His polished and copious postings have earned him nearly 1,040 written compliments from other Yelpers.

"I don't gratuitously slam things, but I don't mince words when it's deserved," Simpson said over dinner at a San Francisco pizza place, whose review he later began, "Understated Italian. Is that an oxymoron?"

Business owners sometimes gripe that Yelpers write poorly, don't fully explain what bothered them about a particular experience or complain about something that's out of the proprietor's control: for example, a vegan trashing a steak house, or a club-goer saying bouncers wouldn't let her in even though she was on the guest list, but neglects to mention that the club had an hour earlier stopped admitting people on the basis of the guest list.

"Sometimes they write a review saying they hate the idea for the store, or that our fair-trade emphasis is gimmicky," said Karin Tamerius, co-owner of Coffee to the People. "On the other hand, if they say they got a stale pastry, that's something we can make a difference on. Is there a problem with the supplier? Did we put out the pastry in the wrong way? We'll often follow up with them and offer a coupon for a free pastry."

By responding quickly, business owners hope they can satisfy a disgruntled customer before the person spreads the word too widely.

"Otherwise, you've got a lot of people out there who might have gotten a stale pastry and they're telling their friends, but they're not telling you about it," Tamerius said.

Popular Yelpers can become like celebrities. Roshni Ray, a 24-year-old aspiring novelist, has been whisked past the crowds outside nightclubs she has reviewed because bouncers recognized her from her Yelp photos. The owner of Unicorn, a Pan-Asian restaurant in Berkeley she loves, sent her a gift certificate in thanks for a five-star review.

The free drinks and compliments that Michelle Idziorek, a 34-year-old recruiter, has received from business owners eventually softened her reviews.

"When I saw managers coming up to me saying, 'We loved your review,' that's when I started realizing these are actually people like us trying to work and do a good job," she said. "I don't write as many bad reviews anymore."

The freebies received by some Yelp contributors demonstrate one potential downside of amateur reviews — readers don't know whether a positive critique was encouraged by special treatment.

After Simpson wrote a positive review of a high-end kitchen supply store, the manager offered him a 15% discount on his next purchase. Simpson never cashed it in.

"I'm not going to do that," he said. "I think it corrupts the whole idea of Yelp."

Most professional critics follow strict rules requiring them to pay for everything they review. But many amateurs don't have the same qualms as Simpson — after all, they're writing for fun, not for a living.

Stoppelman, Yelp's chief executive, said the sheer number of contributors greatly reduces the chance of businesses using favors to boost their ratings. The website's community is self-correcting: For every amateur reviewer who received a free or discounted product or service, Stoppelman said, there are many others writing unbiased reviews.

Amanda Holt, a 29-year-old mortgage banker, said that she has received a few free drinks after reviewing her favorite bars and that she generally tries to be kind to businesses on Yelp. But one incident at Myth, a swanky San Francisco restaurant, caused her to blow her digital stack.

She had a lovely dinner. On her way out, she asked the hostess to call a cab. Holt said the hostess told her to walk down the street to look for one. Holt protested, saying, "Jeez, you pay $500 for dinner and you'd think someone would get you a cab," and was mortified when the hostess walked into the restaurant's crowded bar and began loudly mocking her.

"I was not only stunned, but indescribably offended," she later wrote on Yelp. She praised the food, but recounted the hostess' behavior and gave Myth one star.

Executive chef Sean O'Brien's obsession with Yelp helped win her back. He said much of the writing annoys him, but he can't stop himself from checking the site every day to see what's being written about Myth.

He read Holt's review and immediately sent her an e-mail: "I wanted to personally apologize for the inappropriate, rude, unacceptable and embarrassing attitude of our hostess. I thought we were in the service industry to make people happy, but obviously some people have an on/off switch. Please, let me make it up to you if you decide to give us another chance."

O'Brien said the hostess was reprimanded but was still working at Myth because everyone has a bad day sometimes and, besides, she has other redeeming qualities.

Holt said she was touched by the passion O'Brien showed. She edited her review to include his e-mail — "That is the power of Yelp," she wrote. She has since gone back (getting two free appetizers the first time) and even scheduled her company's holiday party there.

"He conveyed a sincerity," she said of O'Brien. "It helped me get over the whole thing."