Sticking it to Yelp

28 June 2019 | Anya McKenna
Yelp! We’ve all heard of it, right?

It’s Wednesday afternoon.

You sit down at your desk, after a saucy Nando’s takeaway lunch. Embracing the ‘Hump Day’ hype, you order the same thing every week, a mildly-spiced, butterfly chicken wrap.

You sip on your Sprite Zero (who even drinks calories any more, am I right?) and before you tackle the first task on the to-do list (re-categorise the server files. Borrriiingg…), you need to quickly book a restaurant for your other half’s birthday on Friday evening. She has a hankering for Asian cuisine (sometimes Thai, never sushi), so you Google ‘Chinese restaurants near me’.

The first result on the SERPs (‘Search Engine Result Page’ to those unfamiliar) is a Yelp listing for a local restaurant. The reviews are impeccable; All 5*, the first one reading:

“Great little place we just discovered along S. Robertson that satisfied our craving for Pho and Chinese food, all in one place.

Firstly, parking!! There is a lot of space for parking and easily accessible.

The restaurant has ample space and is not tight. The server greeted us immediately and sat us down right away.

The menu selection was pretty comprehensive. We loved the selection as it did range from Pho to Chinese selections. Most of the items are things that we we normally order at two different restaurants, but here they were all under one roof.

The food was good and had an authentic taste which harkens me back to eating in Tsim Sha Tsui in HK.

Overall, a very good experience, and since it's so close to home, we will definitely be frequenting this place. Good job!!”

Great! Exactly what you were looking for.

Table booked. Everyone happy. Or are they ...?

You arrive at the restaurant. And from that moment on, you wish you’d dug a little deeper into the wondrous world of Yelp.

The “food” (don’t even go there) arrived 56 minutes after being ordered (you know because you started timing after the drinks order failed to arrive altogether).

Turns out, the owner had plugged £1.5k into his Yelp advertising budget. The review you had read was written by his cousin, and due to the HUGE ad spend, its 5* reviews had been bumped, making the genuinely delicious, reservation-worthy restaurants who don’t invest bucket-loads of cash get zero traffic.

Surely the corporate giant that Yelp has become wouldn’t act in such a corrupt manner?

Unfortunately, it does… and did!

As was the case for Davide Cerretini’s cute little Italian joint in the US. Fed up of sales calls from Yelp asking him to invest his hard-earned bucks in its ad space, he started to notice the 5* ratings on his restaurant slowly Houdini right off the page.

After checking it out, it appeared that our friendly giant, Yelp, had in fact been removing them, due to his lack of capital input.

I guess nothing in life is free, right?

Likening this kind of extortion to the Mafia that, hailing from Italy, he was all too familiar with, Cerretini took a stand.

“No more!” he cried.

Okay…that may have been for dramatic effect, but we imagine him saying something along those lines when he decided his next course of action.

The thing that bugged Cerretini the most, as he read through all the claims of food poisoning that littered his Yelp profile, was that they were, for the most part, complete and utter bullsh*t.

That’s right, soommeeboooddyy (*wink wink, nudge nudge* Yelp) had written a bunch of extremely negative reviews, claiming things such as ‘rude waiting staff’.

As Botto Bistro’s staff didn’t actually include waiting staff, alarm bells began to ring.

However, this was one Italian you did NOT want to mess with…

The cunning Cerretini put a board out the front of his shop reading

“Give us a one star review on Yelp and get 25% off any pizza! Hate us on Yelp.”

He stopped giving a f*ck about the reviews. He turned a downright terrible experience into a positive one. Customers flocked from miles to try the “worst pizza on Yelp” a title he mockingly assigned to himself.

This somewhat sassy and incorrigibly courageous Italian had outwitted the monster that is Yelp!

Described by fellow small business owners as a “vigilante hero”, journalists flocked from afar to cover his story.

And today, with over 1,000 reviews on Yelp, one thing is certain, he has claimed the title of “worst-rated restaurant on Yelp”

As for the food, we cannot comment, as we haven’t tried it. And flying out to San Francisco for the worst rated pizza on Yelp isn’t exactly top of the Pic PR to-do list, but we can be certain of this, the accusations exposed a plethora of questions around Yelp’s honesty policy and sales tactics. With 85% of ad revenue coming from small businesses such as his, I guess chasing hard is part of the tactic.

However, without exposing their exact algorithm, I guess we’ll never really know why the ratings fluctuate as they do. And without flying halfway across the world, we won’t really know how good our Italian friend’s food really is.

We just know that this is really very clever PR. And that’s what we’re all about.

(P.s. if this story was of interest to you, check out Billion Dollar Bully on Amazon, a film which exposes the corruption of the corporate review giant. So much so, they dedicated a whole landing page to the nay-sayers.)