Yelp’s Toxicity Problem Is Its Own Fault

Small businesses have had a tumultuous relationship with online review websites over the years. This has ranged from people attempting to sabotage businesses with negative reviews (a cottage industry itself), versus the other extreme where small business owners go as far as suing online reviewers.

I’m not here to talk about that, though.

Instead, I want to discuss how the past year with COVID-19 has recontextualized my own relationship with online review aggregator websites that often claim to provide a helpful service but mostly just provide headaches and stress. While far from limited to Yelp, Yelp epitomizes everything we’re going to talk about. Even Google Reviews has at least some standards compared to it.

In turn COVID-19 also helped me realize that the root of the problem isn’t with small business owners suing online reviewers, or entitled customers leaving one star reviews because their food took 16 minutes to arrive rather than 15.

Instead, the root of the problem is Yelp’s failure to address critical issues in their own infrastructure: A platform where the “service” they provide is little more than than a free-for-all of toxicity that causes adversarial relationships between business and customer to boil over, all while Yelp and other aggregators stay radio silent barring extreme instances or other such bad press.

Few industries have been devastated by COVID-19 like the restaurant industry. Small restaurants have disappeared in numbers we’ll never know. I have some personal investment in this; two clients were struggling prior to the pandemic, which served as their deathblow. The other restaurants I work with have mostly made it through the tunnel as my area is back open and well-vaccinated, but it was a very rough 18 months.

What really motivated me to write this was an SFGate article on how there’s been a rise of people forgetting to be human at restaurants since the businesses reopened fully. I’d argue that this article didn’t even really go far enough. Restaurants have borne the brunt of peoples’ stress and trauma from COVID, to say nothing of the people addled by conspiracy theories who started causing scenes at restaurants by refusing to wear masks over the past year.

Naturally, one way that this manifested was in the form of negative reviews on Yelp, Google and elsewhere.

Over the past year I’ve become very familiar with the language of people taking out their frustrations with COVID on their local restaurants and other small businesses:

-Generally “my food was late” is shorthand for “The restaurant is understaffed but I’m blaming them for that”

-“I was asked to leave” over the past year was code for “I didn’t want to wear a mask even though it was required.”

-“The server was rude” is almost always a sign that the server didn’t have a megawatt grin on their face at all times in the middle of a pandemic.

If I can sum up the attitude of small businesses to irate online reviews right now, it’s exhaustion. Which feels on the nose for 2020-21 itself. Revenue has been down, foot traffic has been down, in worst case scenarios and now in the midst of a hiring crisis owners (and their marketers/web developers) still need to take time out of their day to respond to angry people who are generally just taking bad days out on whatever poor small business was in their crosshairs.

In a nutshell: Yelp is refusing to police their own community in any really consistent way unless things spiral so out of control that bad PR forces them to act. In turn, Yelp is also tacitly endorsing cruel, toxic behavior.

These two problems are pitting small business owners against their own would-be customers. It’s the opposite of what any platform that pays as much lip-service to small businesses as Yelp would want on its platform. It’s been a persisting problem for years now, to the point where I regret my defense of Yelp from years ago even though what I said remains true at least in principle.

Now before this seems like I’m taking small business’ side too heavily, I get it: People are angry. They’re upset. They’re tired and stressed. It’s been a nightmarish eighteenth months during which people have gotten sick and lost loved ones. The economy was brought to its knees. Entire industries were decimated and people lost their jobs. People can’t pay their bills and institutional responses throughout most of COVID-19 have been mixed at best. Of course people are short-tempered right now.

The problem is that Yelp tends to specializes in the type of front line work – restaurants, grocery stores, small businesses selling essential goods – that are bearing the brunt of peoples’ rage. That SFGate provides a perfect example of the type of exhausting, demoralizing hits that small businesses – already struggling during a pandemic – are dealing with:

“Basically every supply chain and every supplier is pretty gunked up right now,” said Danny Stoller, co-owner of Square Pie Guys, a Detroit-style pizza restaurant with locations in San Francisco and Oakland. “We’ve had a series of issues with chicken. … And we had a period of time where our custom takeout boxes just never showed up. So we ended up having to pivot really quickly.”

These food shortages are often the subject of customer complaints — and sometimes even a negative Yelp review. 

“Somebody went to Yelp over an item that we ran out of at eight o’clock on a Saturday, and she canceled her entire order,” said Monleón. “… It was like 10 or 15 items we were already making.”

Square Pie Guys has also received some negative Yelp reviews of late. While their Yelp page has received a high enough volume of ratings that the occasional bad review won’t tank their overall rating, for a newer, lesser-known restaurant, one-star reviews can be devastating. 

“We got a Yelp review saying, ‘Hey, I tried to order a few minutes before your closing time, and you stopped taking orders,’” said co-owner Marc Schechter, who explained their website automatically stops accepting orders 30 minutes before closing. “… Why is that a bad Yelp review? Can there be some trust? Of course we don’t want to turn orders down, it’s not personal.”

This is absolutely a problem Yelp helps enable during the best of times, let alone during a worldwide pandemic. I still remember a Kitchen Nightmares episode where then-Yelp community manager Katie Burbank said “All of our reviews mean something. It’s feedback to use however you like.”

This was perhaps a little too prescient of what Yelp and other online review aggregators do: They’re creating a problem and then selling solutions in the form of burying bad reviews in exchange for advertising, all while shrugging about it. Allegations about this have been made for years and it’s all but an open secret. Yelp has arrived at the point where it’s basically a protection racket, and this business practice is essentially outing the fact that they knew their audience can be as toxic as it is.

So what does Yelp do about the deeply problematic system it’s actively cultivated? Nothing. Or at least nothing that prevents these problems from persisting and, by my estimation, getting worse. We also can’t ignore the fact that even if you elect to not advertise with Yelp in exchange for some protection from online reviews, engagement often means profit for these companies. Whether Yelp is willfully allowing the toxicity on their platform or they just don’t care (or want to spend the money) enough to curate it, the end result is the same.

Online review aggregators now want to be so hands-off and so free of any potential responsibility that they want to be the equivalent of Emperor Nero, bloviating about their commitment to small businesses even as they cause problems like this. In the interests of not beating up too much on Yelp, they’re not the sole problem. Neither are online review aggregators in general. There really are some businesses behaving badly on online platforms, just as there are some people behaving poorly. That doesn’t get into the cottage industries of fake positive reviews, or trying to sabotage competition with negative reviews.

Except that’s the problem. You can’t build an “open” network with virtually no oversight, no moderation, and no safeguards against bad behavior and then shrug when it descends into an all out war between your two target audiences. People built Yelp, and those peoples’ priorities and choices are responsible for what Yelp has allowed on its platform. You have to plan for things like irate business owners or conspiracy theory-addled customers and adjust accordingly. Yelp has done none of this, and other review aggregators aren’t much better.

At the very least, you need to stop being this reactive. Things should never get so far as death threats on Yelp, or small business owners suing potential customers. Review aggregators in general have a problem, Yelp included.

I can only hope that there are conversations about this going on in review aggregator boardrooms, because this isn’t working. If these aggregators don’t find some way to improve things, I expect there will be a reckoning for these platforms one day designed to pressure platforms into taking their poisonous atmospheres seriously. A world where irate one star pandemic reviews can potentially derail a restaurant for years isn’t sustainable.