Recently I visited Yelp, looking for a place to have dinner. One of the top restaurants in town was sitting there, staring at me with a three-star review. Meanwhile, a local chain just up the road carried the same three stars.
Reading reviews of the restaurant that deserved more stars left me even more confused:
Five-star review: "It's like the last hurrah of Mad Men. Awesome boardroom atmosphere, and great nouveau-cuisine-ish food. I'd definitely go back!"
What a wonderfully colorful review.
Three-star review: "Expensive."
Not really a review as much as an indictment.
Yes, the place is pricey, but well worth it for the quality of the food and experience. The reviews said nothing about the quality of food.
I noticed some of the higher-rated restaurants on Yelp had more reviews, undoubtedly encouraged by the owners themselves. The ones suffering from harsher reviews had fewer, and most were from years ago.
I came to three realizations:
• Reviews are subjective, and without a large enough data set (I would say 50+ reviews), it’s hard to get a true picture of just how good or bad the place is. My good experience didn't prompt me to write a review, but someone with a bad experience definitely was motivated, and is far more likely to in the future. Face it: people love to complain.
• A restaurant that has more reviews closer to its grand opening is more likely to have lower scores. Restaurants have problems when they first open, and it takes time to attract the ideal patrons and get your process running smoothly.
• Yelp can damage you if you're not playing the game. If you're not consistently encouraging happy diners to leave reviews right there on the spot from their mobile devices, you are leaving the playing field open to the few who are dissatisfied.
I recommend using Google's "From the Menu" feature as well. This gives you the ability to upload photos from your mobile device right to the search results. Since most people start with Google, this will give you an advantage, even if you're not accurately represented on Yelp.
Right now, From the Menu seems to only be seen on smartphones and tablets when searching for your favorite restaurant. We'll see if it also gets added to desktop searches, which still account for a large portion of search behavior.
Most times, when you see photos on a restaurant website, they depict the location itself, and perhaps the dining area. Yes, your customers are uploading pictures of their food, so it wouldn't hurt to make sure your cuisine is presented in its best light by snapping a few photos yourself. All you do is click the blue camera beside the photos when the search results appear.
Some people may read this and frown at the idea of "playing the game." But in the long run if your restaurant is terrible, no amount of good reviews will help you. If you're not doing everything you can to help your customers make an informed decision, then they will listen to people who may not have an accurate view of what your Saturday morning mimosas are like.
I switched gears, using Google (which I usually do anyway) and was pleasantly surprised to see the restaurant in question has taken full advantage of this strategy. The "From the Menu" info pane has numerous pictures that accurately reflect the experience, and the restaurant enjoys a 4.5 out of 5 Facebook review based on 105 votes.
Good for them. I may just go have a glass of wine..or two.
James Crawford is a writer for Bar Restaurant Success.