Online reviews on websites such as Yelp, whether fair or unfair, affect restaurants’ popularity and bottom line. SmartBrief asked Luther Lowe, manager of local business outreach for Yelp, how restaurants can take advantage of online reviews. Lowe will participate in a debate at NRA Show 2011 on whether online review sites help or hurt restaurants.

What’s the danger of disregarding online reviews for restaurant owners?

For any restaurant — or business for that matter — the genie is already out of the bottle. What we mean by that is your customers are already having conversations about your business with each other or on online review sites like Yelp. With over 50 million unique visitors and 18 million reviews last month on Yelp alone, this trend certainly isn’t going away, and burying your head in the sand isn’t an option. Online reviews present an opportunity to get a direct channel to your customers. By ignoring them, business owners could be missing out on valuable insight into what experiences their customers are having, both the good and the bad.

How can restaurant owners have a say in these online conversations?

While restaurant owners can’t necessarily control the opinions of their customers, they can control the services they provide. Great customer service is the best way to positively impact the conversations happening about their business, both online and offline. Beyond that, Yelp provides a free suite of tools — biz.yelp.com — which let business owners have more of a voice and personality on the site. They can use biz.yelp.com to publicly and privately respond to reviews and provide information about themselves and their business including specialties, photos and opening hours.

Why do some people prefer online review sites to professional reviews?

Actually, we believe there is a place for both Yelp and professional reviewers. We know that people look to a variety of sources when researching local businesses but ultimately come to Yelp to vet that business before making a spending decision. Why? Because there is an important difference between Yelp and other online review sites: we are a community review site, not a drive-by one. This emphasis on community means that users value and trust Yelp reviews above any other site out there, not to mention the vast amount of reviews on Yelp means that we are able to point consumers not just to the businesses with the most marketing dollars or media hype, but the hole-in-the-wall taqueria or family-owned delicatessen they would have never discovered otherwise.

Image credit: Yelp Facebook page

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3 Responses to “Q&A: Yelp’s Luther Lowe discusses online review sites”

  1. Mark Moreno says:

    I really didn't expect anything less from a Yelp insider, of course they want you to respond to online reviews. Doing so drives traffic to yelp and pulls eyeballs to their paid advertising. A quick look at yelp in my area shows "249 businesses reviewed for Restaurants" and when you click through the first thing that you see is a paid advertisement for Red Lobster above all restaurants on the page. The Red Lobster featured in the advertisement is thirty miles from here despite the fact that there is one in the area. Looks like yelp needs to work on it's algorithms.

    Independent restaurants need to focus on internal feedback mechanisms or at a minimum, receive reviews in environments that they can control. If you provide opportunities for your guests to post reviews on your website you have the benefit of those guests responding in your world, not yelps. Yelp and sites like them are probably around to stay and often present themselves as a service to consumers to find business, read reviews, and post reviews, but make no mistake about their business model, they are an advertising company.

    "People have given this restaurant 5 stars…. Really?? I guess this proves how Yelp can be manipulated by friends and family. Food is bland, over-priced and each order gets responded to with an "up-sell"… do you want to add crab to that chicken cacciatore… Really??" Actual review from yelp and they offer the following buttons for others to rate the review: "Useful", "Funny", "Cool".

    Yelp does allow you to have a free business listing and it is a good place to post pictures, offers, recommendations for area businesses, etc. You really should claim your business listing with yelp so that you can control that part of your message.

    My advice: treat yelp with a grain of salt, and treat your guests like a ton of gold.

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    • Olson Films says:

      You make some good points, Mark. Aside from Yelp, you should have other means of receiving reviews, including on your site or inside your business. However, I politely disagree with some of your points. Of course Yelp is trying to drive traffic to its website… it's a business after all. It needs to sell ad space in order to make money and continue as a business. Also, I agree with you that some reviews are bogus, but customers do place value on these reviews, so it's important to be informed of what people are saying.

  2. Thanks Mark – A well put counter point to the above post – If I were seeking to be a service provider/representing the interests of restaurants – I would not use the term "hole-in-the-wall" – no matter the size of the restaurant, someone's hopes and dreams are always wrapped up in that business.
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