As a consumer, I often rely on reviews from other consumers when making my purchasing (or dining or vacationing) decisions. And as a social media marketer and content provider, I also rely on reviews, feedback and public opinion found online to help my clients better understand where they stand with their customers (and potential customers), and how they can build positive relationships with these audiences. Because of this, I know a lot about the various review sites and forums out there, and I know which ones I can trust more than others.

Yelp, in my opinion, is one of the most unreliable of these sites. There have been many, many news reports of potential shady practices undertaken by internal forces (site administrators who get incented to delete negative reviews, for example) as well as external ones (employees who bash a competitor’s business by posing as unhappy customers, for example). Which is why I am always skeptical of what I read there and why I feel it doesn’t provide any value – and why I don’t trust it. (While it’s easy to argue that anonymous users on any site can be whoever they want to be, there’s a lot of solid evidence that Yelp itself – not just its users – contributes to the shadiness by favoring advertisers and filtering/hiding reviews… something many other sites do NOT do or allow.)

So when I came across an article, “Craigslist Yelp Ad Offers Money In Exchange for Good New York Restaurant Reviews,” I can’t say I was really shocked or even surprised… but I was disappointed. Not in Yelp so much, because this wasn’t Yelp’s doing, but in the business owner who posted the Craigslist ad. Plain and simple, whoever it is just doesn’t get it. On so many levels. He doesn’t understand (or care about?) authenticity. Or business ethics. Or how not-easily-fooled so many of today’s consumers really are. Some things worth noting about the ad:

  1. Missing from the list of requirements? The Yelp user needn’t necessarily be a patron of the restaurant, it seems. He or she must simply be good enough at writing and have at least 50 reviews under his belt. Because lots of reviews obviously equals credibility. (That was sarcasm, in case you couldn’t tell.)
  2. People, by and large, are not stupid. When they see positively glowing review after glowing review – especially ones that include no detail or meaningful information because THE REVIEWER NEVER ATE THERE – they’re going to know something’s up.
  3. While paying someone to review something objectively is one thing, paying someone to review something and telling that person what to write is quite another. Lots of bloggers get perks and incentives from companies, stores, etc. to blog about their experiences, but there – by law! – must be a full, clear and easily locatable disclosure of this relationship, AND these bloggers must be free to write whatever they want, good or bad. It’s the company that’s taking a gamble by doing this – it’s on them to have the product or service that backs up their apparent confidence.
  4. Let’s take a step back, person posting this Craigslist ad. How about – instead of staging this ridiculous effort that may not even work (or, more likely, will backfire) – you focus on actually, you know, making tasty food. On making your real patrons’ experiences good ones. So they actually enjoy your food and your restaurant. So that they keep coming back. So that they tell their friends all about it. So that they feel absolutely compelled to share photos of their meals on Instagram! In other words: why don’t you actually spend your time and money trying to fix the bad things so bad reviews stop happening.

It’s really a novel idea, I know, that happy customers = positive reviews, and unhappy customers = negative ones. But it’s something that some business owners don’t truly understand or give credence to… and that’s a real shame. And let’s remember this fact, too: the end of the day, one negative review here and there probably won’t keep customers from trying your restaurant. But lots of positive reviews that feel completely phony because they lack any substance or value certainly won’t fool people into coming, either.