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On the Web, anyone can be a restaurant critic, but should they?

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com
Some restaurants, such as Nueva Onda, embrace user critiques on Yelp.

On the Internet, everyone has a say.

We've always had opinions and a few patient people willing to listen to them, but now we have a soapbox, a microphone and "Step right up!" promoters, announcing to the world that we've just reported on a late-night trip to Amy's Ice Creams and had a 4 1/2-star experience, all because of those Reese's Pieces crush-ins.

On the flip side: Don't like the attitude from the text-messaging server who didn't bring you extra jalapeños for your pizza that took 45 minutes to come out? You can go home, log on to any of a dozen user-generated review Web sites and punish him with a one-star rant.

Yelp, Chowhound, Citysearch and Urbanspoon are just a few of the sites that allow anyone with a keyboard to do a job that was once held by only a few people in a community: professional restaurant critics. For decades, traditional media outlets — including newspapers like the American-Statesman — have paid critics to review not only restaurants, but also movies, concerts, albums, art exhibits, theater performances and TV shows. And now, millions of amateur and not-so-amateur reviewers are taking to the Web to share their two cents, and even more people are going online to read them.

At the South by Southwest Interactive Conference next week, I'll be leading a conversation along with Yelp user and food blogger Jennie Chen about the changing world of restaurant criticism in a guided discussion called "The Yelp Effect: When Everyone's a Restaurant Critic."

Instead of getting a visit from a newspaper critic once every few years, restaurant owners now know that every customer who walks in the door for a $5.99 lunch special could walk out with a shining or scathing review percolating in her head.

Online or in person?

Michelle Cheng, who has written more than 500 restaurant reviews on Yelp since joining in 2006, says the urge to tell others about something as ubiquitous as food and eating out is universal. "An experience is more fun when it's shared with someone else," she says. "And everyone can relate to food." She uses Yelp to help find new places to eat and to connect with others who have similar tastes. But for some users, it's also a venue to tell others about every detail of an unpleasant dining experience.

Even for a restaurant staff that can serve 250 diners in four hours on a Friday night, the barrage of constant, usually anonymous feedback can feel unmanageable, and negative reviews can do more than hurt feelings.

"People don't realize the impact they can have on a business," says Larry McGuire, the chef-owner behind Perla's and Lamberts Downtown Barbecue restaurants. Even though complaining online is cathartic to diners, it isn't nearly as effective as addressing the problem immediately with a manager on duty. "It's harder to correct a problem when you hear about it five days later on Yelp," he says. He knows that some diners are embarrassed to send food back, but he says it's the cooks in his kitchen who are embarrassed when that happens.

But not all restaurant owners or staff are receptive to hearing about mishaps. Diners who keep quiet about slow service or incomplete dishes might fear being labeled as the "fussy" table or, in some cases, being told that they were actually the party at fault. (We've all felt this sting: A server at an upscale restaurant in Austin once told me, after I complained about salty risotto, that I must not know what risotto is supposed to taste like.)

Like many diners, Cheng says she'll bring up any serious problems with a restaurant manager, but she saves minor issues for the online review. "I wouldn't want them to comp my meal because it was a little cold, but I would kind of like them to know."

Olivia O'Neal, who owns Sugar Mama's Bakeshop in South Austin, responds to both positive and negative reviews on Yelp. "I look for trends. If three or four people are complaining about the same thing, then we're probably doing something wrong," she says. "I've addressed issues that I wouldn't have known about otherwise if it weren't for Yelp." But in general, she sees people using Yelp as a forum to tell others about what they love, not just to complain.

If social media sites like Yelp are forcing restaurant owners to be better listeners, they are forcing consumers to learn how to filter information. Professional critics spend years developing review skills and trying to gain readers' trust. Amateur critics have valid opinions, too, but not all user-generated reviews carry equal weight.

Jennie Chen, who studies online behavior and social psychology as a Texas A&M doctoral candidate, says that just like in real life, trust is something you have to earn online. When she's reading others' reviews, she's quick to note how many previous reviews a person has written and to gauge the tone of the criticism. She says it's pretty easy to tell who just has an ax to grind and who is offering a balanced, well-thought out review.

On most user-review sites, a restaurant becomes a standing part of the site as soon as someone posts a review. It's often weeks or even months before restaurant owners discover their review pages.

How sites work

Different sites attract different kinds of reviewers. Citysearch allows people to write a review and give a star rating, but Urbanspoon only allows a review and a "likes it" or "doesn't like it" rating. Chowhound is more discussion forum than review site, where users post queries such as, "Looking for family-friendly dim sum" or "BEST MAC AND CHEESE???"

However, none of these sites has gained as much traction in the past few years as Yelp, which had 29 million visitors in January. But as Yelp's popularity has surged, so have its problems.

Yelp contacts business owners to sell sponsorship packages, which include paid search results similar to those offered by Google and the ability to pick one favorable review that sits at the top of their page. But many owners have complained about how both good and bad reviews are rearranged seemingly on a whim and that they have no control to remove reviews that are factually incorrect or potentially libelous statements.

Last month, a California veterinary hospital filed a class-action lawsuit against Yelp alleging unfair business practices. The suit claims that Yelp salespeople asked the business to pay $300 a month in exchange for removing a review.

In a response to the lawsuit online, Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman explained how sales members contact businesses to offer them sponsorship packages and that a secret algorithm is in place to determine the order of the reviews and to filter out self-promotional ones or those written by competitors. "Yelp does not remove or hide negative reviews in exchange for money, and Yelp salespeople do not offer to do so," he wrote.

Kevin Newsum, who has spent the past three years as Yelp's Austin community manager and throwing parties to nurture the budding userbase, says user-generated reviews are empowering both to customers and businesses. "These conversations are happening all the time, and business owners can choose to be a part of it."

Newsum, who was recently was promoted to a regional director for the company, says that businesses can flag reviews that they feel violate the company's terms of service, but he says the users are good about flagging inappropriate reviews. "People want to trust content on the site, so as a community they are looking for spam and promotional reviews," he says.

He says owners can "grab the reins" by claiming their business page for free, which allows them to view page statistics and gives them the ability to respond publicly or privately to reviews. "It's an opportunity for businesses to engage customers in a way they haven't been able to before," he says.

McGuire, who says he doesn't respond to comments or reviews online, acknowledges that sites like Yelp and Chowhound are creating buzz for the restaurant industry. He just worries that diners are becoming too focused on criticizing a meal instead of allowing themselves to enjoy the experience of eating out. "We try to provide two or three hours that you don't have to think about your e-mail or your computer," he says.

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504

Chat about chow with us

Do you use Yelp or other user-generated review sites to decide where to eat? Chat live with restaurant critic Mike Sutter and food writer Addie Broyles at 2 p.m., Wednesday on austin360.com/relishaustin.

The SXSW panel 'The Yelp Effect: When Everyone's a Restaurant Critic' (11 a.m. Sunday, Austin Convention Center Room 19B), which Broyles will help lead, is open to Interactive conference badgeholders and those who buy a day pass.