Yelp’s logo is called “The Burst.”

According to the website of the crowdsourced-reviews platform, The Burst is modeled after the symbols that appear over the heads of cartoon characters during a moment of discovery and is intended to emulate the “surge of energy” that Yelpers feel after “sharing their latest adventure” in a review.

If you’re unfamiliar with the logo, imagine five pieces of solid red candy corn arranged in a circle with tapered ends pointed toward the center. It looks a bit like the radioactive symbol with two extra propellers, or a star that lacks integrity.

Like The Burst, the population of Planet Yelp is fragmented and five-pronged. It’s also hierarchical.

Yelp executives sit at the top. Reviewers lounge comfortably underneath. The next section, the largest, comprises people who use Yelp only as a search engine to find businesses. Business owners are the next grade down. Their employees occupy the lowest bracket.

Both Yelp and Google reviews are hugely influential on the well-being of small businesses. Studies show that a one-star increase in a Yelp rating generally leads to a 5 to 9 percent increase in revenue. Eighty-six percent of Americans consult online reviews before selecting a local business, and about 48 percent of people won’t consider patronizing a business with fewer than four stars.

These days, online reviews loom larger than ever. Since the onset of the pandemic, consumers have been interacting with reviews—searching, reading, and applying filters—at a rate 50 percent higher than they were pre-COVID. If you Google a restaurant’s name, the restaurant’s Yelp page will likely be sequenced above its actual website. Owners cannot opt-out of either Google or Yelp listings.

I’ve frequented three of Yelp’s five factions. I started near the top, as a reviewer, and worked my way to the bottom.

I published my first review when I was fourteen. It was for The Cupcake Bar—a bakery that stood in the center of downtown Durham before closing in 2018—and it was scathing.

“Come here if you’re looking for a dry, disappointing end to your night,” it read. “I left wishing that one of Pizzeria Toro’s fires had traveled a bit farther to the left.”

Four Yelpers voted the review as “Funny,” pushing it near the top of the bakery’s “Recommended Reviews” section. While my subsequent reviews weren’t nearly as cruel, they were rarely for the benefit of anyone but myself. As an aspiring food journalist, I used the platform to exercise my youthful writing chops—the lobster tail pastry at Carlo’s Bakery wasn’t “good,” it was “a blissful eruption of cold crème pâtissière”—and as a way to get published. But I never wrote one-star reviews with the intent of being constructive; I wrote them to exert agency.

In 2016, after three years of writing reviews, I entered phase two of my Yelp career: I created a business page for my custom cake and dessert company, Lena’s Lunchbox. The year after, when I moved to Washington, D.C., for college, a few things happened: First, I started paying an exorbitant monthly amount for Yelp ads, which pushed my page slightly up the list of local bakeries.

Then, less than one month after I started school, The Washington Post caught wind of my business and ran a story on the front page of the Metro section, leading to a barrage of orders and more reviews.

I never received anything below five stars—I imagine this was because people felt weird about trashing the business of a teenage girl—but I was spooked by the prospect. My page had so few reviews that even one or two unhappy customers could tank my standing. I had a new understanding of the impact of online reviews, from an owner’s perspective, and began to write fewer.

In 2019, I shut down Lena’s Lunchbox—I wanted to focus on school; also, I lost most of my sense of taste during a nightmare wisdom tooth extraction that fried the nerve endings in my tongue—and started working as a hostess at Founding Farmers, an upscale-casual American eatery located a few blocks away from the White House that happens to be the most-booked restaurant in the nation and the third most reviewed on Yelp. Pre-pandemic, Founding Farmers received around 1,500 reviews per month on review platforms.

Performance feedback was swift and I developed a bad habit of checking Yelp immediately after I clocked out, scanning reviews from guests to see if I’d been mentioned. Most of the time, I was commended, but sometimes reviewers would describe me as moody and aloof. One customer complained that “there were no smiles or joy” on my face; that it looked like I was “in prison.”

He was probably right: The shifts were chaotic, packed, and grueling, and the customers, often VIPs or political bigwigs, were entitled and difficult to please. I was also being sexually assaulted by two of my coworkers.

After starting that job, I stopped Yelping entirely.

While one bad review can’t do much to harm the average rating of a large-scale operation like Founding Farmers, it can be devastating—and sometimes job-ending—for employees. Service workers are frequently the subjects of customers’ indignation, even though most things we take the blame for are institutional and out of our control.

And if you’re under the impression that people are softening their online reviews because of pandemic-era sympathy for restaurants and their workers, buckle up.

In September 2020, after a six-month hiatus, The New York Times announced that restaurant critic Pete Wells would resume writing reviews again, with a caveat: until the pandemic ended, he wouldn’t pair them with a star rating.

Other publications have taken similar approaches: Eater recently declared that it’s abolishing its star system for good, with chief critic Ryan Sutton writing that the past year has led him to wonder “whether we’re better off permanently dropping this blunt instrument that doesn’t evolve as dynamically as our language or our values.”

But where professional critics are loosening their review systems, customers are picking up the slack.

A few months ago, one of my coworkers at Bull City Burger and Brewery—where I work part-time as a server and bartender—was identified in a parenthetical of a Google review: “Had a horrible experience. The staff was rude (green hair).”

I kept the post to myself when I saw it, but a manager brought it up the next week while we were discussing the validity of online reviews. One of the owners of the restaurant had seen the review and asked him about it, my manager said, and he’d realized the author was a customer whom my green-haired coworker, Bounty Gibson, had politely asked to put on a mask. The owner and manager decided there was no point in telling Gibson about the review, but Gibson still came across it a few weeks later.

“I felt like shit for like two straight days,” Gibson says. “It definitely could’ve endangered my job, if it weren’t such a close working environment like this is. They could’ve been like, ‘You got a Yelp review, we know it’s you, you’re fired.’”

While learning that the reviewer was an anti-masker contextualized the encounter, Gibson says the possibility of backlash can discourage them from confronting customers about pandemic protocols. In a more recent attempt, they tell me, they handed a paper mask to a barefaced customer who proceeded to strap it onto the back of his head, the way Guy Fieri wears sunglasses when indoors.

“It’s always been that every time someone comes in without a mask, I have to decide whether to endure abuse or risk my own health,” Gibson says. “Now there’s this added layer of maybe getting called out on the internet.”

Two months ago, Luna Rotisserie in Carrboro made headlines when it immortalized a particularly absurd one-star Google review on a T-shirt. The reviewer, who describes Luna as “full of satanic activity,” exudes antimasker energy: “As free breathing humans,” the reviewer writes, “we were discriminated against, the wait staff refused to serve our laughing, smiling faces.”

Given Luna’s success in turning a negative review into positive publicity, the restaurant likely isn’t fighting to get it removed. But if it wanted to, it would be nearly impossible: because the review doesn’t explicitly use the word “mask,” it doesn’t meet Google’s standards for prohibited political commentary.

In Durham, Alley Twenty Six owner Shannon Healy says he experienced a smattering of polarized, nonlocal reviews after news coverage of his restaurant’s vaccine requirement.

“Because they heard on the news that Alley Twenty Six requires proof of vaccination before entry, a dozen people are allowed to give me one-star reviews, having never entered the place,” Healy says. “And because they don’t explicitly say what they have an issue with, none of the sites will take it down.”

Healy says he sometimes tries to bait people into admitting their anti-vax status by replying to one-star reviews with requests for additional feedback. Then, maybe, he can flag a review and get it removed.

“But this is, like, eight steps now,” Healy says. “Instead of working on running my restaurant, we’re spending our time on defense.”

It would be hard for a restaurant to not be on the defense: star ratings carry real power. And unlike professional restaurant critics or guidebooks, which adhere to definitive, public assessment criteria for ratings, Yelpers make their own rules. The arbitrariness of the system is perhaps most concisely depicted in the South Park episode where Gerald, a self-proclaimed “Yelp critic,” hunches over a keyboard.

“My experience at Applebee’s was sublime and my treatment near that of a gladiator most decorated,” he writes. “But the street parking wasn’t that great. Two and a half stars.”

While browsing Yelp listings for Triangle restaurants, I came across scores of reviews from customers who attributed their negative ratings to a single, highly subjective factor. On the Yelp page for the Durham sandwich shop Toast, for example, one reviewer admitted he hadn’t tried the food, interacted with the staff, or even set foot in the restaurant. “I arrived at 3:03,” the review reads. “They close at 3. No leniency.” One star.

Cocoa Cinnamon co-owner Leon Grodski de Barrera notes that while “most people who read reviews can read between the lines,” the majority of users only look at the star rating.

“For the first time ever, in the history of our company, our Yelp reviews [have dropped] to four stars,” Grodski de Barrera says. “And it’s because of pandemic things. It’s because of our mask policy, it’s because of our auto gratuity—things we put in place to protect our team have brought our score down. To me, that’s wrong.”

A recent New York Times feature attributed the decline of civility in public and “transactional” spaces, from airplane outbursts to grocery store meltdowns, in part to an ingrained expectation for a “frictionless economy”—the pre-pandemic experience of obtaining “whatever you wanted, the moment you wanted it”—during an era of supply chain shortages, understaffed businesses, and corporate policies that give customers few actionable outlets for frustration. The result: a nation that feels bereft of agency, and service workers and business owners that bear the brunt of its anger.

“I don’t know what happened to people, but they just got real nasty,” says Scott Crawford, owner of several Raleigh-area restaurants, including Jolie and Crawford & Son. Detailing the attitude shift customers have had during the pandemic, he adds, “If I spoke to guests this way, I would be on the 6:00 news. If I spoke to my employees this way it would be considered harassment.”

For customers reluctant to express ire in person, online reviews are the next outlet.

Seth Gross—who co-owns Bull City Burger, Pompieri Pizza, and Bull City Solera and Taproom—says online reviews seem to be making customers increasingly averse to voicing their issues in person.

“We have created a culture where, when someone asks, ‘Are you enjoying everything?’ people are conditioned to say, ‘Everything is great,’ and then they will go sit in their car and write a negative review,” Gross says, adding that he doesn’t understand what customers think they will gain from leaving a critical review online.

“It has to be that your only motivation is to be hurtful,” Gross says. “Because if you say something while you’re in the restaurant, we will do everything we can to give you a good experience.”

As a whole, the digital realm is conducive to a culture of outrage. It affords people a shield of anonymity so they can, in Healy’s words, “get their bile out.”

When people spout off on social networks like Twitter or Reddit, they may feel some catharsis but not necessarily a sense of control; complaints usually just vanish into the void. This is the draw—and the danger—of online review sites. They present not only a place to rant but an opportunity for influence.

The most entrenched aspects of the restaurant industry are usually the easiest to overlook, and the most problematic. Tipping perpetuates discrimination, sexual harassment, and pay disparities between front- and back-of-house employees. Shift drinks often encourage substance abuse as a coping mechanism for high-stress environments.

And the online review system, despite being less than 20 years old, is already deeply entrenched in the industry. I know this partially because of how long it took me to question it. When I was on the receiving end of mean-spirited reviews at Founding Farmers, I placed blame on myself, the customers, and even my coworkers. Until recently, I never considered that the problem was the platform.

Customers can be cruel. But the real monsters are Yelp and Google, the nasty middlemen.

“This is a really hard thing to go on the record about with the press,” Elizabeth Turnbull tells me, “because I have zero proof. I have nothing but anecdotal experience.”

Turnbull and her husband own COPA, a Cuban restaurant in downtown Durham. Before COPA opened in 2018, they spent seven years at the helm of Old Havana Sandwich Shop, located just down the street from their current business.

Before hesitantly raising the phenomenon she has zero proof of, Turnbull was telling me about an incident that occurred last March, in which COPA received a torrent of negative online reviews intended for a Cincinnati restaurant and dance hall called Copa Lounge.

That month, the owner of Copa Lounge had allegedly refused entry to a group of Black women. After a video describing the encounter went viral on TikTok, impassioned supporters across the country took to Yelp and Google to flood the lounge with one-star reviews. But because review sites list establishments in order of their geographic proximity, most of the people who lived closer to North Carolina than Ohio ended up mistakenly posting reviews for the Durham COPA.

Just like that, during a time when they needed business most, COPA’s ratings dropped.

Mistaken identity cases of this severity happen somewhat often; a similar incident happened to Proper Brick Oven restaurant in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago. Despite this, Google doesn’t provide clear guidance on the steps owners should take to get reviews removed in mistaken identity situations.

It took Turnbull two months to get the “mistaken identity” reviews taken down from Google. The Google marketing team rejected her initial request—there was no way she could prove that the reviews weren’t intended for her restaurant, they said—so she researched alternative recourses, eventually realizing she needed to open a legal inquiry case. After she sent links to news articles about the incident to the legal department, Google agreed to remove the reviews.

When it did, though, it also eliminated every review that had been posted for the restaurant in the previous six weeks.

“Through the publicity, we’d had good legitimate reviews from customers who said, ‘Oh, I’ve been meaning to leave a review, let me go do that,’” Turnbull says.

Dealing with Yelp was more straightforward: she flagged the reviews for discriminatory activity and Yelp promptly removed them. When Turnbull mentioned that Yelp’s support in “this particular case” was “ironic,” I asked her what she meant.

This was when she described an odd experience with Yelp.

Anytime COPA’s star rating on Yelp starts to approach four and a half stars, Turnbull says, the company (which makes around 95 percent of its revenue through advertising, according to its quarterly letters to shareholders) starts to bombard her with calls and emails asking her to join its paid advertising program. When she declines, more negative reviews appear on COPA’s page and the star rating drops back down. Soon after, sales reps will contact her again, reminding her she would have a higher rating if she bought ads and heavily implying that the one- and two-star reviews could be suppressed. The same thing happened, Turnbull says, when she owned Old Havana.

“I can’t prove a connection, but it sure feels like what they’re really asking me to do is pay them protection money,” Turnbull says. “And when I say I don’t need to be protected, then suddenly I do.”

Turnbull’s hesitancy in speaking about this is understandable: Yelp is one of the largest tech companies in the world, and COPA is a small, independent restaurant trying to pay its staff a living wage during a pandemic. But Turnbull is far from the first restaurant owner to make this claim. The belief is so widespread that one of the FAQs on Yelp’s site is literally “Does Yelp extort small businesses?”

Online, most owners’ accounts are nearly identical to Turnbull’s. They have varying opinions on where the negative reviews may be coming from: some claim that Yelp is crafting and uploading its own fake one-star reviews, while others think the company is pushing existing negative reviews to the tops of their pages and shifting positive reviews to lurk in the “Not Recommended” section—a sort of subduction zone where star ratings, while visible, are not factored into a business’s overall rating, and an area that users can only access by clicking on an inconspicuous link at the bottom of the page.

For more than a decade, businesses have been accusing Yelp, which was founded in 2004, of extorting advertising money through review manipulation. A handful have sued.

Yelp always wins.

A federal appeals court in San Francisco dismissed one such lawsuit in 2014, concluding that even if the plaintiff was able to prove Yelp’s usage of the alleged tactics, it would still be legal: the ruling states that “it is not unlawful for Yelp to post and sequence the reviews,” and “as Yelp has the right to charge for legitimate advertising services, the threat of economic harm that Yelp leveraged is, at most, hard bargaining.”

Despite the court’s decision that Yelp is essentially free to squeeze small businesses for cash, the company remains staunch in its denial of using any Mafia-esque tactics.

In an official statement to the INDY, Yelp writes that “there has never been any amount of money a business can pay Yelp to alter reviews or ratings, and we treat reviews for advertisers and non-advertisers exactly the same—regardless of when a business starts, stops or declines to advertise on Yelp.”

Because business owners can’t opt out of having a Yelp page (Yelp chalks this up to the First Amendment), there seems to be only one way to evade the company’s advertising requests—and its alleged manipulation of reviews.

Owners have the option to leave their Yelp page “unclaimed.” This means that they won’t have the ability to add their own photos, update their hours, or reply to reviews. It also means that sales reps won’t pester them to buy ads.

If a business is new and unclaimed, sales reps will occasionally contact the owner to try to convince them of the value of Yelp’s free tools—that is, to convince them to claim their page so Yelp can start asking for money—but eventually, according to seasoned “unclaimed” owners in the industry, they’ll stop calling.

But forgoing the ability to reply to reviews is no small sacrifice. On a platform where the power dynamic is skewed hugely in favor of the customer, responding to reviews is the only way that owners can retain some locus of control.

Seth Gross generally only replies to positive reviews—“Reward kindness,” he says—but he adds that having the option to respond is crucial in the event that someone posts a review to the wrong business. “One time someone said, ‘Your chicken wings were terrible,’ and I said, well, we don’t sell chicken wings, so I think you might have the wrong restaurant.”

While researching, I noticed that the Yelp page for Carrboro’s Venable was unclaimed, so I called the restaurant’s owner, Andrew Moore, to confirm that they didn’t try to sell him ads.

“They never call me,” Moore says, “and I would never buy an ad on Yelp. I hate Yelp.”

When I ask if Moore’s decision to remain unclaimed was strategic, he tells me he has no idea what “claiming” his business even means. Regarding customer feedback, Moore says he primarily pays attention to the comment cards that customers fill out at the end of the meal.

“It really cuts down on our critical reviews,” Moore says. “If they fill out a comment card, they feel like they can address the issue that they had without needing to go online.”

For owners who feel powerless over their online review pages, comment cards could be a good preventative measure to take.

“There’s something so strange about how cruel people can get when they’re typing into a computer versus handwriting something,” Moore says.

In terms of improving the online review system itself, Grodski de Barrera suggests that review sites should have a system for rating reviewers, in the way that Uber drivers can rate their passengers. That doesn’t necessarily mean that restaurant owners would be assigning stars to customers, he says, but there could be a peer-review system—or review sites could create an algorithm to detect serial one-star reviewers and adjust their credibility rating accordingly.

When I ask Turnbull if she has thoughts on how to rectify the system, she’s skeptical that platforms can be trusted to implement positive change.

“This is where regulation and legislation need to step in,” Turnbull says. “In the same way that they’re starting to hold certain social media outlets accountable for the fake news that they let circulate and propagate, reviews are in a similar fashion.”

Every restaurant owner quoted in this article noted that most of the feedback they receive is positive, constructive, and appreciated. But, across the board, these owners—all of whom, I should note, boast fairly high Yelp ratings—told me they would opt out of having a Yelp page if they could, despite its assistance in boosting their online visibility. This makes sense, as Yelp gives business owners two options: they can leave their page unclaimed and, in turn, relinquish control of their side of the story, or they can claim their page and allegedly be subjected to review manipulation if they don’t pay up.

“I don’t get to opt-out,” Turnbull says. “I don’t get to say, ‘My business is not open for review.’ So if you’re going to eliminate the choice for me and use my business and my name and my branding as a way to profit, because it’s driving traffic to your site, the very least you should do is provide some kind of accountability for truth.” 

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