Social media allows anybody and everybody to promote themselves these days. There’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and a whole host of social media strategies that are especially helpful to those who know how to work them. In the world of social media that impacts businesses, however, one platform stands out—Yelp. The paradox of this San Francisco-based social media company’s success is that it’s not known for its utility to businesses per se. Rather, Yelp caters primarily to the end-users of businesses—those who write reviews about businesses ranging from restaurants to auto mechanics. If anything, Yelp has an adversarial relationship with the vast majority of businesses that Yelp reviewers write about.
Among Yelp reviewers, there’s a category known as the Yelp “Elite Squad.” These are reviewers who have reached a certain stage in their critiques of businesses that makes them special to Yelp—and to other reviewers. In short, Yelp Elite are a pampered lot. They get invited to special events—offline gatherings where they bond with each other over food, drinks, music or art. The parties are organized by Yelp community managers, almost all of whom are recruited from the ranks of the Elite Squad and who encourage reviewers by commenting on their reviews in message-board discussions. Yelp’s “meet” strategy is a rather brilliant mix of social media and amateur business “journalism.”
Hollywood resident Sondra Barker has been a Yelp reviewer for about half a dozen years and a member of Yelp’s Elite Squad since 2013. With 137 reviews and 234 “friends” to her credit as of November 21, 2014, Barker knows a thing or two about what it takes to reach the top echelons of Yelp’s membership. In this wide-ranging interview, Barker talks about her experience writing reviews for Yelp and discusses the social media platform from the point of view of both its end-users and the businesses that are an integral part of the mix. Excerpts:
What do you do besides being a Yelp Elite?
I am a medical assistant and a personal trainer and Pilates instructor.
What’s your education like—your school or degree?
I have a degree in Women’s Studies and sociology from the University of Hawaii.
How did you get into Yelp—and do you remember your first review?
I do not remember my first review, but I started writing reviews because I checked reviews. If I go some place or if I’m looking for a place to go to I always go to Yelp for a reference. I started using Yelp when I moved to Los Angeles from Hawaii. Los Angeles has so many restaurants and businesses. What if you’re looking for an honest car mechanic?
So you started out reading Yelp reviews and then began writing them?
Yes, I think most people start out reading them. I like to write and I’m opinionated, especially when it comes to food. It’s wholly natural for me to write food reviews—it’s my personality, especially in Los Angeles. I take picture of my food and list everything that I ate, and what I thought of everything. And I try to be very honest.
At what point did you start getting heavily into writing reviews for Yelp?
About three or four years ago I started writing more in-depth reviews and I started taking pictures of all the little snacks and foods that I got. Then I started creating little lists—I have dogs, I love dogs. Yelp allows you to create these lists of, say, places you can take dogs or a list of great places for happy hours or places to go for brunch. Or the bottomless mimosa list.
Very interesting. So it kind of starts by being organized and following other people’s lists, such as the best Italian restaurants in New York.
Yes, I think there’s a search option where you can just kind of search people’s lists and people can add you as friends and you can check out their lists.
How many reviews do you have under your belt?
Over a hundred.
What are some of your favorite places you couldn’t wait to Yelp about?
One place I really love is Bestia in downtown L.A. I don’t know if it’s a hundred percent my favorite restaurant but I gave them a very good review. It’s in a very weird, obscure area. I went there on a date and I was almost scared. I said to myself, Oh, my God, where is this person taking me?
So you didn’t know about this place from Yelp—but you couldn’t wait to put it on Yelp?
Yes, I was just very excited to be there. I thought it was such a little hidden gem. All the food was so creative and interesting and delicious.
Do you think that’s why people love to Yelp? Because sometimes they find a hidden gem, like you’re talking about, and they want their friends and everyone else to know about it?
Sure, that’s definitely one reason. If people find something really cool and amazing they want to let others know—they want to give [the businesses] credit.
What was the worst experience you had at a restaurant you Yelped about? Have you given anyone a one star?
I like to be very fair. I don’t like giving anyone a one star. Every time I go to a new place I hope it’s going to be great and that I can give them a five-star review. I’ve even gone to places where the experience was not the best—they probably screwed up my order three times, but they were so nice and accommodating about it and really tried to remedy the problem that I ended up giving these places a five-star review. These are the kind of places where, for example, while everyone had gotten their food and they’re fixing my problem, they bring me a super salad and are very apologetic and super nice. So, to me, that’s an extra star.
Can you tell us about a place that you gave a one star?
Sure. I love brunch—it’s my absolute favorite. I went with a friend—kind of like a date—to this place off Sunset called Eveleigh. I picked it because it looked really cute and trendy. It had a patio that was kind of like a bar, with cool lighting. But from the moment I got there I was so disappointed. The hostess was so rude. She had this really arrogant attitude. I believe I had made reservations, but she was very snippy. The hostess if the first impression of a restaurant. Hostesses should be hired based solely on their personality. You can train people to do just about anything—maybe they’re not going to be perfect—but if they don’t have the personality for certain jobs they’re not going to do it well. A hostess should be someone who is cheerful and has a good attitude. Don’t hire a hostess because you think she’s pretty and very L.A. I feel like restaurant owners neglect the position of the hostess because it’s someone who assigns the seating. But a hostess is the very first impression of a restaurant, which is very important.
Anyway, we sat down and the sun was blaring in my face. It was not necessarily their fault, but it was kind of uncomfortable. The biggest disappointment was that this place wasn’t cheap. I got a hash with meat and eggs and my date got the big breakfast, which was eggs, hash browns, bacon, sausage, the works. It was $20. And it was awful. Everything looked burned. So we told the waitress, especially about the hash browns, and she put them on a separate plate, brought them to the kitchen, brought them back, and said, Ya, the chef said they’re supposed to be this way. And I was like, You’ve got to be kidding me.
I get the whole sunny side up thing, but my egg was very raw. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. At the end of my review I said next time I’m just going to go to iHop. Because they get it right every time. And if I return my hash browns, they will take them away, put them in the garbage and make me new ones the way I ask for them.
Have you met anybody from Yelp in real life—have you made any friends?
Well, we go to special events all the time. Every month, Yelp puts out a calendar of events. They’re only for Yelp Elites and to some of them you’re allowed to bring a guest. I always try to bring my friend because he’s so nice—he takes me out to eat all the time. We all sit together at these events like a community and chit-chat.
Some events are specially for Yelp Elite in the areas where they work. Like a lunch break—you get to go and try out a restaurant near your work. So I’ve done the Backyard at the W [in Westwood]. It was very nice—in the middle of the day. I brought a guest and we had a family style meal.
In fact, the reason I started working at a medical spa in Beverly Hills was that we had a Yelp event there. That was the first time I went there. These events are very nice, very well done. We had one recently at Fogo de Chow, a Brazilian restaurant on Beverly and La Cianega. We had a whole back room and there were 30 or 40 of us. You could get wine or a specialty cocktail. The meat they served us was great, but I’ve had better food at other Brazilian restaurants. So, even though it was a Yelp Elite event, I’m not required to leave a five-star review. I can still give my honest opinion. And when you go to a Yelp Elite event, you can review the event itself—there’s a separate page on the Yelp website for that. And they tell you not to review the restaurant until you go back there.
So is that what you did—you went back to Fogo de Chow?
I probably, actually, wouldn’t go back. It’s very pricey. And while the meat was very good, the sides and the buffett weren’t. I feel like when you pay so much you can’t slack on one thing.
Are these events good for networking with other professionals?
It’s really just Yelpers who love to review. It’s not really for networking. But there also are events where you don’t have to be a Yelp Elite to go to.
How does one become a Yelp Elite?
You can either be nominated or you can just nominate yourself. And then someone will review your page and get back to you. They might say, We liked your page but you need to have a few more reviews. Or that you need more detail in your reviews.
I actually nominated my girlfriend Courtney L. because I thought it would be so much fun to be together.
Is she a Yelp Elite?
I don’t believe so. Her reviews are very short. Kind of like two sentences. It’s not enough. She also didn’t have enough reviews. The Yelp community manager told her to write a little bit more.
Why did you nominate Courtney even though you knew her reviews were not up to the mark?
Because she is a very active member of the community. She goes out a lot—she goes out to a lot of restaurants. She’s a lawyer. She and I go to charity events. She would make a good Elite. She just needs to add some more depth to her reviews. I feel like there should be more diversity to Yelp Elites—ethnic diversity and people with different types of jobs who are active in the community. But you still have to write reviews well.
Is there some sort of target for reviews before a reviewer become an Elite? Is 100 reviews enough?
No. I think when I became an Elite I maybe had 60 reviews.
Psychologically speaking, what do you think makes people want to write Yelp reviews? Some reviewers who are not even Elite have a thousand reviews. Writing reviews seems to become a journey—an adventure—in which reviewers are competing with each other to get more reviews and check out new places. What do you think makes people do that?
I think there are different reasons why different people do it. Some people get competitive but there are other people who are big foodies who love to try different types of restaurants. My big dream—my secret job—is to be a food critic. So what better way to be a food critic than to write my own reviews each time I go to a new restaurant? Some people want to give their opinion about a place just to make others aware.
What would your advice be for restaurant owners who want to get more positive reviews and a higher score for their restaurants on Yelp?
I think you want to have good food, good service and cleanliness. Those are three things people notice right off the bat. The situations in which restaurant owners mess up is when they do have a nice restaurant and really good food but the service is bad or they’re not properly accommodative when something goes wrong on a n order. Getting someone a soup or a salad while fixing their order is not expensive to do, and can make the difference between getting three stars and five stars. Even if you mess up and you accommodate it, people will overlook the mistake.
What should restaurant owners do when they do mess up and see a three-star review. Should they try to contact the reviewer and invite him back in the hope that he will give a five-star review the next time?
Absolutely. And the best thing to do is to prevent getting a three-star review in the first place.
Have you ever changed your review from a three star to a five star?
Yes, but I don’t believe it was because the owners had to ask me to do anything. The place I mentioned earlier, which I gave a three-star review—I went there again and the same thing happened with my order. They messed it up. I had given them a four-star review the last time around—because they were so nice. But this time they were so nice again that I changed my review from a four star to a five star.
The really annoying thing is that there are many places that will tell you to come back—so that they can make it better for you—but they actually argue with you. They tell you that you’re crazy. There’s one place I went to, a little pasta place at the Beverly Center on La Cianega in 2012. It was called Your Pasta Story and it was awful. The food tasted like cat food. I had ordered a caprese salad and salmon pasta with lemon sauce. It was really bad. The bread was awful, too. Even my boyfriend at the time wouldn’t eat the food. And I said to myself, if he’s not eating it, there’s a problem.
So I wrote an in-depth review and gave them one star, because this place was not really cheap, the atmosphere was weird and the food was just not good. And this woman, the owner, wrote back, and told me that there was a problem with my palette—maybe I just don’t have a developed palette. She said their salmon dish was one of their most popular dishes. “I wish it could have been to your taste,” she said. “But our fresh products cannot satisfy every palette.” And this is what she said about her awful bread: “We use the recipe of a very famous bakery in Paris to make our bread. Sorry we did not have French toast to please you.” That was like, Sorry, we didn’t have Wonderbread.
I thought that was insane. I couldn’t believe that she insulted me like that. Other Yelpers read these replies. She was this crazy person who didn’t know how to accommodate her customers.
Do you have the ability to reply to an owner’s reply on Yelp?
What I did was that I edited my original review and put a section that read, In reply to the owner’s comments, the pasta came out barely cooked. I am used to home-cooked pasta, and this was not even close. I don’t want toast. I want fresh, baked bread that isn’t doughy and barely cooked in the center and doesn’t have a bitter taste. And finally, I can make a better caprese salad at home than what you served, using large-sized tomatoes, fresh slices of mozzarella and a nice balsamic reduction. Using little cherry tomatoes is cheap, does not add any flavor and is lackluster to say the least. If you want to believe your food is amazing, good luck—but it is not. The salmon tasted like cat food—it was chewy, like it was boiled and the sauce was very watery, with no flavor. And last, please don’t insinuate that I don’t like or know fresh food. I know great fresh food and have been cooking all my life. You need a little visit from Gordon Ramsey and then maybe you’ll believe that your food is not good.
Did you go back there?
No, no way, never.
Would you have gone back there if she had been very nice and accommodating?
I had a bad experience with a customer once. She asked for the nutrition facts of our food at Zankou, and I told her that we didn’t have them but that as soon as we did I would put the information on our website and let her know. But she accused me of having the nutrition facts but not disclosing them. So, what should a restaurant owner do in such a situation?
I would have explained to the customer that by the law when you have a certain number of restaurants you have to have your nutritional information.
Yes, I think it’s 20 restaurants …
I’ve actually written a negative review about a place that wasn’t clear about what was in their food. It was a place that claimed to be healthy but then they had ice cream in their green tea. I felt very deceived. I wrote them and asked for the caloric content of certain things, and they were not very helpful. I think it’s a good idea for a restaurant owner to have the nutritional information about food even if he doesn’t have 20 restaurants. Just in case someone asks.
I did do that. But she called me a liar.
I would stay calm and say, I assure you I would never lie to my customers. They are very important to me. And if you have some food item in mind you’d like nutritional information about I’ll try to find it out for you and get back to you as soon as possible.
Yelp’s business model has changed a lot over the years. It started with a pay-per-call system, then launched a pay-per-visit program, which charged businesses every time someone visited their Yelp pages. And then finally Yelp settled on a model that gives businesses the ability to place sponsored search results. How do you think this model has worked for Yelp from the point of view that while it has generated profits it has arguably limited Yelp’s growth potential?
Well, business models constantly change. Look at Facebook. You now need Facebook Messenger to read your messages. So I think it’s normal for businesses to constantly be progressing. When a business stays stagnant, that’s when it fails. As how Yelp should balance its reviews-based structure with an advertising model, that’s a very complicated issue of business strategy. I can’t really give you an answer. But at the end of the day, the more Yelp users there are—the more active people who write reviews and read reviews—the more businesses are going to start counting on them for their own business. So it’s really a win-win situation.
How do you see Yelp changing over the next five years?
Right now everything is very good. However, so many people on the business side do not like Yelp because they get very upset about negative reviews.
And some of these reviews are bogus—they’re inserted by the competition to a business.
Sure. So I think the best thing Yelp can do in the future is to make sure that the reviews are authentic and to work with businesses just as accommodatingly as they work with users.
Questions to Consider for Review?
1) One of Yelp’s biggest issues that has not yet been resolved is that:
a) Many reviews are posted by restaurant owners but do not appear on the listing due to Yelp’s “secret formula” metrics.
b) Many reviews are posted by the competition that are fake only to drive down their rivals’ total review scores.
c) Yelp is not as popular as Google
d) Advertising on Yelp does not bring in proven results.
2) What should a business owner do to improve their score on Yelp?
a) Subtly encourage more reviews from positive fans by posting their Yelp pages on their web site
b) Contact a bad reviewer, apologize and offer to make it up to them
c) Make sure that customer service and food are excellent in the first place
d) All of the above
3) Who is not allowed to be a member of the Yelp Elite ?
a) Anyone that has posted negative things about yelp in online forums
b) Anyone who is not a US citizen
c) A local business owner
d) Anyone who earns less than $100,000 per year