After hearing rave reviews from his friends, Scott Cover decided it was time to try the pizza at Joe Squared himself. But after a lackluster pie and what he considered overpriced beers, Cover felt the popular Station North restaurant had fallen well short of his expectations.
"Initially, I was severely let down," Cover, a 31-year-old information technology consultant, said recently of his March 2010 outing. "It was like, 'This isn't as awesome as everyone makes it seem.'"
Then the Federal Hill resident did what many customers do after a bad experience: He turned on his computer and wrote about it.
"The sauce was horribly bland, and I couldn't even taste it as it was simply overpowered by everything else on the pizza," Cover wrote.
His critique wasn't posted on Facebook or Twitter, but Yelp, the increasingly popular website that serves as a public compilation of user-generated reviews (more than 33 million) and a social media community full of opinionated shoppers. The site receives an average of 84 million unique visitors per month, according to Darnell Holloway, Yelp's manager of local business outreach.
But really, Yelp — and other review sites such as Angie's List and Google Places — are websites where everyone is a critic. The writers may lack credentials, but they lack an editor, too, which allows their reviews to be as harsh or as glowing as they see fit. Customers have always wielded the influence to potentially make or break a business through word of mouth, but Yelp takes it a step further by neatly compiling reviews on an easy-to-find website. While the power is in the ¿ hands of the customer, businesses take these reviews seriously, too: They're firing staff members based off complaints, and reaching out to unsatisfied customers with free incentives in hopes of getting a second chance.
There are even lawsuits over negative online reviews. After giving a one-star review to an alleged "nightmare" of a contracting job, Fairfax, Va.'s Jane Perez was sued by the contractor for $750,000 in an Internet defamation lawsuit. A hearing will be held today, according to The Washington Post.
While Holloway declined to provide Maryland-specific statistics, it's safe to say Yelp has a sizable audience in the area. There are more than 1,700 restaurants in the Baltimore area with Yelp pages. Woodberry Kitchen, which has been written about most, has more than 500 reviews.
"If you look at our traffic growth, it's been pretty phenomenal over the past few years," Holloway said.
It has never been easier to publicly laud or skewer a local business. Anyone with an Internet connection or smartphone can affect a company's reputation, whether it's a hair salon, restaurant, physician or general contractor. And the reviews can make an impact: Last year, a study published in the Economic Journal suggested a half-star on Yelp could swing a restaurant's reservation availability by 19 percent.
Cover's story of pizza letdown could have ended with his review, but because Joe Squared's owner Joe Edwardsen checks his Yelp pages (he has a second one for his Power Plant Live restaurant) once per week, he read the two-star (out of five) review shortly after it was published. As he does with all negative online reviews he considers reasonable, Edwardsen sent Cover a message through Yelp, offering a free meal as an apology.
"I just want to change their mind," Edwardsen said. "I want to find some way to actually please them. I don't want them to feel like we took advantage of them."
This type of back-and-forth exchange happens often on Yelp, and it helps illustrate why the website has become so popular in recent years. (The publicly traded company posted $83.3 million in revenue in 2011, up nearly 75 percent from the previous year, according to Forbes.) While the main goal of Yelp and similar sites — besides making a profit — is to better inform consumers before spending their money, engaged businesses stand to benefit, too.
Edwardsen says negative comments about specific staff members "have been the icing on the cake to someone getting fired."
"I've heard a lot of customer complaints that have led to productive changes to the restaurant through Yelp," Edwardsen said. "No one would have said it directly to my face, but they'll post it on that site."
That influence and power isn't lost on Amber Patterson, general manager of Zina's Day Spa of Canton. While she says a referral from a friend to a new customer remains the most effective way to expand business, a positive review online is "the next best thing." Zina's employees encourage satisfied clients ("the ones that rant and rave" as they leave, Patterson says) to write online reviews.
"Absolutely, it's a big thing," Patterson said. "Their goal is to get people to come back, so I encourage them all of the time to discuss reviews."
But what if those opinions can't be read easily?
Before publication, a Yelp review must make it past an automated "filter" system. While it is Yelp's policy not to discuss how the system works, Holloway says 20 percent of all reviews are filtered into a separate section of the site, including both legitimate reviews and fake ones written to try and "game the system."
"It's the high cost we're willing to accept," he said.