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Yelp heavy hitters talk about company's growing clout and struggles

Datz is now the most-evaluated Tampa Bay area restaurant on Yelp with more than 1,100 reviews.
Published Aug. 26, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Walter Palmer may have killed Cecil the lion, but it was Yelp that offed Palmer's dental practice.

Since the crowdsourced review site's debut in 2004 it has experienced a meteoric rise among consumer websites, now boasting an average of 83 million unique monthly mobile visitors and 79 million desktop visitors. Consumers can read and write Yelp reviews in 31 countries and counting.

Later to the game than cities such as San Francisco or New York, Tampa Bay has nonetheless embraced Yelp, with sites such as Urban Spoon and Chowhound dwindling in influence. A recent Nielsen survey says that when compared to TripAdvisor, Angie's List and other local directories, people name Yelp as the review site most frequently used when searching for local businesses.

As Yelp's clout expands, and in anticipation of the release of its annual top 100 Tampa Bay restaurants list on Monday, it seemed like a good time to share a coffee at downtown's Brew D Licious (four and a half stars on Yelp) with Kayleigh Winslow, a Yelp public relations specialist in New York City, and Brett Nehls, community director of Yelp Tampa Bay, to talk about challenges the company faces.

While these digital word-of-mouth reviews have traditionally covered businesses from boutiques to mechanics and dentists, just last week the General Services Administration announced that it has agreed to allow governmental agencies to claim their Yelp pages and to respond to consumer reviews.

From the National Park Service to the Transportation Security Administration, Yelpers will have a more straightforward way of giving feedback, airing a beef and in general influencing how government does business.

Despite poor stock performance in the past several months and a soon-to-be-released critical documentary about the company called Billion Dollar Bully, Yelp's power continues to grow: Early in August it announced a new partnership with ProPublica, a not-for-profit investigative journalism organization, which will add data to thousands of health care provider listings.

Managing this democratic platform has its challenges. Winslow said the Palmer situation required "all hands on deck at the corporate level." The world's most hated Minnesota dentist, he swiftly was the recipient of more than 8,000 "reviews" — many impugning his character and very few evaluating digital X-rays and veneers. Yelp leapt in and pruned.

"We're learning how to handle social vigilantes," Winslow said. "We have to stand for what Yelp reviews are for."

The crisis before that? It was in April when the owners of Memories Pizza in Walkerton, Ind., said they would not cater a gay wedding and the Yelp shaming kicked in, causing the pizzeria to shut down temporarily. Yelp took down thousands of reviews.

"We only remove reviews if they violate our terms of service — for instance, if they are hate speech," Winslow explained.

"In general, the Internet has the reputation of just a bunch of trolls saying anything," Nehls said. "But 79 percent of Yelp reviews are three stars or higher."

Other than appealing to the better angels of human nature, Winslow said San Francisco-based Yelp has an automated algorithm that runs 24/7 looking for suspicious reviews.

"We try to prevent drive-by Yelpers who write that one rant or rave," she said.

At the same time, Yelp works to identify business owners attempting to deceive customers with falsified or purchased positive reviews.

"When we find businesses offering cash for five-star reviews we put a consumer alert on their business profile, which stays up for 90 days," Winslow said.

With more than 83 million reviews, policing is tough. But it does seem that a sheer number of reviews allow readers to take an informal average, tossing out the flaming negatives and the love notes that sound suspiciously like the chef's mom.

Still, Yelp reviews are permanent. In this era of "reputation management," doesn't a business deserve a second chance? Whether it's a lion-killing dentist or a wobbly rookie restaurant, can a business come back from seriously negative reviews?

Nehls points to Tampa restaurant Roux as a success story.

"At first there was content from people saying 'I know Cajun and this isn't Cajun.' But they have bounced back strongly."

Roux's sister restaurant, Datz, recently surpassed Bern's Steak House as the most reviewed restaurant in the area on Yelp with more than 1,000 reviews. Part of this is because owners Suzanne and Roger Perry are dedicated devotees of social media, routinely engaging with customers across platforms.

In general, Nehls said, business owners don't respond to reviews as often as they should. Even in the face of an erroneous or off-topic critical review, Winslow said, "This can be an opportunity for a business owner to look sane next to a crazy person."

The biggest Yelp category is shopping (23 percent of all reviews), with restaurants second at 19 percent and travel and hotels way down at 2 percent (territory ceded to another online giant, TripAdvisor). Despite shopping's lead, restaurants draw the largest number of user-generated photos, which can be linked directly from the Yelp app to Twitter and Facebook, and seem to draw the most ardent, even vicious, reviews. The topic that gets consumers' blood boiling?

Service.

A Harvard Business School study recently found an establishment with good customer service is more likely to have a five-star review, and that a one-star increase in Yelp rating leads to a 5 to 9 percent increase in revenue.

Nehls thinks he understands why service is so important to Yelpers.

"We all have different palates and taste buds. But when it comes to service — anybody can be nice."

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.

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