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Posted: 6:00 a.m. Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A cautionary tale about online reviews

Yelp helps independent restaurants gain ground over chain restaurants--usually!



By Clark Howard


It used to be that a play or a restaurant in a metro area could be greatly impacted by the critic of major newspaper. But we've come to a point where the collective wisdom of the herd means more and can have a bigger impact on how you choose to spend your money.

Amy's Baking Company has gotten a lot of attention (of a not-so-good kind) because of a Facebook meltdown when they got bad Yelp reviews.

Meanwhile, a Harvard Business School report that I read about in The Washington Post found that chain restaurants are losing ground and user-generated review sites might be the reason.

For myself, I use Yelp when I'm traveling all the time to find a bagel shop in the morning or a place to grab some lunch later in the day. During my last book tour date in Austin, Texas, I even got a haircut based on a Yelp recommendation!

As the popularity of sites like Yelp has grown, independent restaurateurs have picked up market share based on all those people giving their unvarnished takes on eateries. Chains are safe and familiar, but what if you could go to a place you've never been to and have a great experience?

One of my producers Joel and I were driving on I-95 in New England one evening on book tour and it was time for dinner. Joel pulls up Yelp on his smartphone as we're driving and finds a restaurant where every single review was five stars. (That kind of unanimous favorable showing is very uncommon among Yelpers.)

Yelp worked with an Android app on his smartphone to navigate us turn by turn off I-95 and right to the restaurant. Technology is truly amazing! And the place offered the best pasta I'd had in years and years, to boot.

You want to experience new places? Yelp can get it done. One caveat though: Make sure there are many, many, many reviews before you trust the validity of the reviewers. If there are just a few, they could be planted there by the proprietors.