Since Yelp’s inception in 2004, consumers have posted more than 24 million restaurant reviews on the platform. That figure doesn’t even include the mountain of reviews that appear on other sites: Google, TripAdvisor, Facebook, and OpenTable. What was once a fringe market has quickly morphed into a pervasive industry influencer. But the way consumers use the technology has changed, making restaurants question if the sites are still relevant.
When Michael Franks opened Chez Melange in Redondo Beach, California, in 1982, restaurant recommendations were still word-of-mouth. Online reviews didn’t start affecting his business until a little more than a decade ago.
“I hadn’t been aware of it until we had about 10 reviews on Yelp,” Franks says. “Then I read some of the reviews and thought, ‘Well, this is interesting; this could be something.’”
Years later Franks says the basic online review model has remained true to its original mission of sharing consumer opinions on a wide scale. He goes even further to purport that online reviews make the restaurant industry better. “It’s part of the way we do business now and you have to embrace it,” he says. “It is a powerful tool for the customer. It will make you better and it will frustrate you.”
Alex Bates, guest services manager for Ocean Prime, visits more than 200 individual sites each day checking separate pages for all 14 locations of the multi-state chain. The team was always aware of online reviews, says Heather Buck, director of training and guest services. But it wasn’t until six to eight years ago that the feedback started figuring into the decision making.
“We used to see them and not do anything about them, then we started looking for trends, and finally a few years ago we started monitoring and responding to every one,” Buck says.
Nearly half of consumers say online reviews are important when choosing a restaurant, according to the Chicago-based customer feedback software company ReviewTrackers. One-third won’t patronize a restaurant with less than a four-star rating. Clearly, online reviews are still relevant, says Max Schleicher, ReviewTracker’s head of content. What has changed is which sites are important.
“In 2015 Google started to dominate reviews,” Schleicher says. “Google is number one now, then Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Facebook. Restaurants want to have strong presence on each of these.”
Google started attaching review stars to its localized searches at the end of 2010, according to ReviewTrackers’ 2018 Online Reviews Survey. At the time, the search engine collected reviews from other sites. But after acquiring restaurant review guide Zagat, Google shifted its focus to host its own reviews—a move that changed the entire online review ecosystem.
According to ReviewTrackers’ data, 63.6 percent of consumers say they are likely to check reviews on Google before visiting a business; Yelp ranks second at 45.2 percent.
What differentiates Google from the rest of the competition is its sheer breadth; the majority of website traffic is routed through Google, meaning the search engine can display its own star ratings to users ahead of other sites.
Nevertheless, the set of expectations customers attach to review sites is fairly consistent across platforms. Per ReviewTrackers, 53 percent of customers expect businesses to respond to negative reviews within a week, but an even greater amount (63 percent) purport the businesses never responded to their review. And a somewhat unsettling 94 percent report that online reviews have convinced them to avoid a business.
Restaurant operators have different ways of dealing with less-than-flattering feedback. Ocean Prime reviews are studied for trends and if a pattern of similar complaints emerges, the team considers operational changes.
At Crossings in South Pasadena, California, owner Patrick Kirchen says he will respond to a negative review, but only in private.
“I never respond publically on Yelp,” Kirchen says. “I only respond to negative reviews, and out of 380 total reviews, I’ve probably responded to 20. I don’t offer free dinners or anything. I just apologize and say I’d love for them to give us another chance. I invite them to email and discuss their issue, but I’ve never gotten an email.”
Kirchen says if guests genuinely wish to offer feedback, they will tell others or post a review with their name.
“I respond privately because if I respond publicly to one review and not another, some people could think their opinion doesn’t matter,” he says.
With anonymous reviews, Kirchen plays detective to figure out who left the review, what they ate, and who their server was so if the complaint is legitimate, he can take steps to avoid repeats.
But like Ocean Prime, Kirchen and his team at Crossings seek trends.
“We did one dish when we opened that four or five reviews of the first 30 didn’t like, so we took it off the menu because it just wasn’t properly executed,” Kirchen says. “That’s how I use online reviews.”
Although Yelp has been mired in lawsuits alleging that it hides positive reviews for companies unless businesses choose to advertise, neither Kirchen nor Franks have had such an experience.
“I’ve been encouraged to buy ads, and we have done so because it gives us a bigger presence,” Franks says. “It was my wish; no pressure. It doesn’t help you get a good review. Like any reputable advertising company, they won’t mix the two.”
While asking happy customers for reviews is tempting, Kirchen refrains, saying reviews should be sincere.