Yelp seen as helpful for some, harmful for others

By Ryan Cornell

For some it’s a dreaded four-letter word. For others, it’s a powerful advertising tool.

The customer review website Yelp.com has become both feared and loved for its ability to turn anyone with an Internet connection into a food critic. Whether those critics are legitimate or not is another matter entirely.

Kelly Sprague, co-owner of the Blue Wing Frog, describes review sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor as “a double-edged sword.”

Although they’re helpful for attracting new customers through the front door, she said the sites allow anybody to say anything, however unreasonable their complaints might be.

For example, take the customer who decided that he didn’t like the picnic decor inside and gave the Front Royal restaurant a failing grade.

Or how about the woman who gave a negative review about a dish she didn’t even eat?

“She just looked at somebody else’s sandwich and said it had too much lettuce,” Sprague recalled.

For each of those hollow barbs, there are the constructive comments that Sprague makes a point to carefully consider.

“I treat it the same way as someone in my restaurant,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a reasonable complaint.”

Abraham Agosto, owner of the Old Mill Grill, also knows what it feels like to receive an unfairly negative review.

He recounted one customer who gave a one-star rating after spending no longer than five minutes at the Strasburg restaurant.

“He came in, sat down, looked at the menu and the first question was, ‘Do you have beer?'” Agosto said. “I said no and he said, ‘There’s nothing you can do for me,’ and he left. He didn’t even say nothing.”

The Old Mill Grill, which receives its liquor license next month, is rated four stars on Yelp.

One source of contention among some restaurant owners has been the company’s methods of selling advertising.

Agosto said he received a phone call from one of their salespeople asking him to advertise with them.

Their price tag: $350 per month for a minimum of one year, according to Agosto, who didn’t take the offer.

Sprague shared her experience of a sales call from Yelp: “It’s kind of weird because it’s supposed to be a community forum, but basically they strong-arm you unless you take the advertising. If they’re selling advertising, how are they doing who comes up first when someone is searching on their iPhone?”

Overall, she said there are improvements that could be made.

“You have to take the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said. “I think it’s one of those things that’s going to be tweaked for awhile until it’s fair and equitable.”

Agosto said he’s noticed some reviews deleted from the website, including those that might be too positive or negative in nature. He said the website seems to offer more help than harm.

“I think it helps a lot with the local businesses, because it drives the traffic to that particular spot, and it forces the merchant to do a better job,” he said. “It helps encourage people to become more competitive.”

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com