Online Reviews Aren’t Just for Bored and Angry People

Local business-owners attest to the fact that online reviews hold immense weight, perhaps more than the average person would expect. (Chase Manze)

Local business-owners attest to the fact that online reviews hold immense weight, perhaps more than the average person would expect. (Chase Manze)

We have more power than we know. With every taco we eat, every manicure we get, and every space heater we buy, we have the chance to either create or destroy. I’m talking, of course, about the postmortem that comes after so many capitalist exchanges. I’m talking about online reviews.

Justin, the longtime manager of Ivy League Stationers on 116th and Broadway, calls it “the Sword of Righteousness”—our power to build up or tear down any business we want at the hasty flick of our capitalist carpals.

Managers and owners all over Morningside Heights work tirelessly to please us—Barnard and Columbia students—because we’re one of their main sources of business. We’re the market, and if the market isn’t happy, you can say bye-bye to your business’s success. And in our brave new world of anti-confrontation and constant access to catharsis forums, the market speaks—with caps, emojis, and typos galore—through online reviews.

Now that one-off and longtime customers have equal say on Yelp and Google, local businesses (especially in New York City) don’t thrive on soft-spoken regulars like they used to. 95 percent of people aged 18 to 34 read reviews for local businesses, and over half of all consumers will go to a business only if it has four or more stars. But how reliable are strangers’ opinions?

As you’re probably well aware, the idea of writing a review usually pops into your head only when you have the Pizza of All Pizzas or eat a burrito that leaves you praying to the porcelain gods for weeks. With all the free time I have (and haunted by the idea that my beloved Roti Roll could go under if a PSA to help local businesses doesn’t surface soon), I decided to go around Morningside and pick managers’ brains on the goods and bads of online reviews. Turns out, they matter. A lot.

Almost everyone I talked to stressed how important their business’s online ratings are to their success, but it’s also clear to them that the whole enterprise lends itself to shaky participation. Anthony Gjolaj, daytime manager of V & T Pizzeria on 110th and Amsterdam, looks at the restaurant’s reviews every day, but most of the time he gains little from them.

“The majority of people who leave reviews are there to complain,” Anthony said, pointing out what a lot of us see firsthand. Whether it’s Grandma or a mediaphile friend, we all know someone whose lowkey sadism takes the form of online kvetching. The Sword of Righteousness—as every manager I talked to knows and fears—can take down any establishment if its few outraged wielders out-Yelp the silent majority of loving regulars. (I’m still grieving for Nussbaum & Wu [at least we have Absolute Bagels, though].)

Some managers had ideas for improving the system of who reviews and why—asking customers specific questions and giving businesses notice before reviews go up were two. But in the end it all depends on which customers decide to carry the Sword.

University Hardware & Housewares on 113th and Broadway has been serving Morningside for 80 years and just combined their two Barnard-side shopfronts into one Columbia-side megastore across the block—an upgrade that flaunts their longtime success. Their online ratings show it, too: they have four and a half stars on Yelp and a 4.3 on Google Reviews, some of the highest numbers in Morningside. But even they are at constant risk of being smote by the all-too-hasty Yelper.

“Reviews kill businesses,” admitted José Rodriguez, who’s been at UHH for 18 years. He described his frustration with sites like Yelp and Google, saying they distance businesses from their clients and don’t give owners and managers a chance to talk to unsatisfied customers before one-stars go public.

“Sometimes it’s a misunderstanding or something out of our hands,” he explained. “At least give us the opportunity to make things right.”

There’s clearly a problem with who reviews and why. To quote Lady Gaga, “100 people there can be in a one room and 99 don’t believe in you but just one believes and”—all right, I’ll stop there.

Point is, review sites like Yelp and Google promote just the opposite. There can be 99 lifetime customers in a shoe store and one who doesn’t get an imaginary discount, and if the only one who leaves a review is the unhappy (unreasonable) minority, down go sales. This is all too often the case.

Once we realize that the Sword of Righteousness needs to be wielded by moderates and extremists alike to evaluate a business fairly, the question becomes not whether we should help local businesses by taking the time to write reviews, but where we should do it. Turns out that our neighboring sellers almost all prefer Google over Yelp, which makes sense for a couple of reasons.

First, there’s the micro lens. Every business I spoke with has a Google rating that’s a whole point higher than its Yelp rating. Oaxaca Taqueria on 123rd and Amsterdam, one of the chain’s many storefronts in the City, has the most dramatic gap of the places I visited, with two and a half stars on Yelp and a 3.9 on Google.

Then there’s the macro difference between the two platforms. Yelp, unlike Google, uses an automated software that weeds out the reviews it considers unreliable, often favoring those written by überactive Yelpers. Go to any business’s Yelp profile, and you’ll only have immediate access to around 75 percent of its reviews, if not fewer. And Morningside managers have noticed.

Justin from Ivy League Stationers—the “Sword of Righteousness” guy (and a Finance major who’s studied Yelp’s analytic system)—told me that Yelp recently took down nine of his positive reviews. Explaining his frustration with the site’s filtering process, he said, “If they can’t police both sides equally, they should let the market talk.”

Justin might not have it as bad as other nearby business owners, though. Laxmi Bhatta, who’s been at Revive Spa & Salon on 121st and Amsterdam since 2009, told me that Yelp removed 17 of her regular customers’ reviews from the business’s main page. (See for yourself: right now, there’s only one visible review—and under it, a banner with “17 other reviews that are not currently recommended.”) Since the incident, Laxmi has refused to pay attention to her Yelp account, and she said Revive is going off the site entirely within the next month.

No matter which site you use (TripAdvisor and Facebook, though less popular, are two other platforms some people go to for recommendations), leaving honest, level-headed ratings for Morningside shops keeps our local ships afloat. Weird as it is to think about, Yelping and Googling have become legit forms of community involvement—activism, even.

So much of the owner-to-customer setting of yesteryear has changed with our new love of food delivery and Amazon-shipped sneakers. But the storefronts are still there. And they’re waiting for the market to speak, whether the old-school way (like, talking) or the way of the iGeneration. While online reviews aren’t the same as a hug or a slug, they are a way to stay involved with the outside world. A meaningful review—critical or complimentary—connects us to our neighborhood services by letting them fix what’s wrong, leading to improvements that’ll keep our favorite cafés and yoga studios alive.

Just make sure that hair in your soup isn’t yours, yeah?

Ryan’s an avid Yelper who spent most of his first semester at Columbia writing hip-as-hell reviews for the best-known pizza joints in NYC. He’s also lactose-intolerant.

CultureRyan Daar