You call this swill chile verde? (Why consumer review services like Yelp are useless)

Whom do we trust when we’re looking for information? Increasingly, research shows that Americans are more likely trust friends, peers and word-of-mouth over “experts.” For instance:

  • A 2007 eMarketer survey of the most trusted sources of information for US consumers was topped by “friends, family and acquaintances” and “strangers with experience.” These sources outranked “teachers” and “newspapers and magazines.”
  • A CDC study shows that moms trust pediatricians the most, but that they trust “friends and family” more than everybody else, including parenting books, employees in the doctor’s office, and newspaper and magazine articles.
  • Heck – just sift through this page at BazaarVoice if you need dozens more examples of this phenomenon.

I’m assuming that reviews from trained professionals (like movie, music, food and software reviewers) would be included under the general “newspaper and magazine” categories, although I can’t be sure.

One of the artifacts of the Web 2.0 explosion has been the profusion of sites soliciting consumer feedback. One of the most successful such operations (maybe the most successful – it’s certainly the one I am personally most aware of) is Yelp, but you can find comments on all kinds of businesses at the Web sites for local TV and print outlets, alt weeklies, independent blogs, you name it. Because by golly, in the age of social media, we care what you think!

Which leads me to my reason for writing today. I have been known to comment that, yes indeed, opinions are like assholes – everybody in fact has one. (Well, except for this guy.) However, informed opinions are more like Mercedes-Benz E550 convertibles – that is, they’re somewhat rarer.

Last Saturday I found myself hankering for some good Mexican – specifically, something slathered in the chile verde that this part of the country is famous for. There are a couple of places that have long been my go-to options for green chile – Lime and Benny’s are very different, but I love both. I was feeling like exploring, though, maybe trying something new, and I remembered that a week or two ago my Yelp e-mailer devoted an issue to “D-town Green Chile Lowdown.” So I dug it out, read the reviews and recommendations, and settled on one of the two places closest to where I live. The commenters had some small carps about various peripheral issues, but the consensus was that the green chile was righteous.

I had to wait awhile for a seat because the place was packed. Good sign, as a rule. I ordered my favorite Mexican dish – beef burrito with chile verde. It arrives, I dig in, and let me tell you, “righteous” isn’t quite the right word. A better word would be … let me think here, because I want to get this right … ummmm … what’s the word for “completely and utterly without any taste whatsoever”?

The beef itself was doing its part to hold down the restaurant’s seasoning costs and the chile, well, put it this way. I’m not a renowned Mexican chef by any stretch, but I have two recipes that are worlds better.

Disappointed? You betcha. I can’t imagine going back there, especially since it was also a dollar or two pricier than other Mexican restaurants in its general class.

I can only theorize that all those positive, nay glowing comments on the sparkling fabulosity of this place’s verde were written by employees or family members of the owners. And that’s the problem with consumer reviews – comments are of no value in the absence of some means for determining credibility. If you’re vested in the business, you may lack objectivity. Or maybe you’re an idiot, which also tends to compromise the value of your contributions.

Sure, I have family and friends I might trust on certain questions – a brother-in-law who’s a CFO in the furniture industry, for instance, might be of some value if I’m hunting for furniture bargains. But I have other relatives and social associates that I wouldn’t trust if I were trying to figure out what color the sky is.

The bottom line is that you can hit a consumer review site, read the comments, and still have no idea how to decide. One product has dozens of positive reviews – that could mean it’s really good. Or it could mean that the marketing group does a good job leveraging the power of social media.

When I got home, the first thing I did was unsubscribe from that Yelp e-mailer. All it can really do is call my attention to businesses I didn’t know about, but I can get that from a lot of places, including a local alt-weekly – and when I go there I can also find reviews from, you know, reviewers. People who do it for a living. I may not agree with them all the time, but odds are their taste buds can distinguish between tasty chile verde and dishwater thickened up with flour. Also, I’m probably not reading something my waiter wrote on his day off.

8 replies »

  1. I had that problem with one of the Best of Boulder “favorite Chinese restaurants” a few years back. The restaurant was voted the best by Daily Camera readers, but I ate there just once – it was like eating paper flavored with oil and a little garlic. I was very, very disappointed. Sometimes things work out, but sometimes they’re totally out of whack with reality.

  2. As much as I’d like comment on the veracity of this post, I’m too scarred after reading about that assholeless Chinese man.

  3. This is also a microcosm of the whole crowdsourcing model. And as a marketer, it scares the assholeless crap out of me. in your case, it was equally as possible that the restaurant was great (having nothing to do with the Yelp reviews). And you could have thought that Yelp was a great resource after that experience. Truthfully, you could have tossed a coin and gotten the same “advice.”

    I have a client who is currently dismayed that another service (not Yelp) is displaying a pretty scathing review of his establishment. The problem? It’s the ONLY review. So it looks really bad and is countered by nothing. My advice was for him to reach out to a good customer (or 10) and ask them to check out the service and leave a comment. Is that stacking the deck? Maybe. Does it make the reviews more accurate? Maybe. His response was to ask if he could unsubscribe from it. Heh. No. I’m afraid that’s not an option.

  4. Right.

    I might edit this into a business-focused version. In it, I guess I’d note the problems Yelp creates for businesses as well as the advantages. Gaming the service, and of course, we should talk about the possibility that the bad review was written by a competitor…

  5. “I can only theorize that all those positive, nay glowing comments on the sparkling fabulosity of this place’s verde were written by employees or family members of the owners.”

    That’s all you can theorize? You couldn’t possibly imagine that other people have different ideas about what makes good salsa verde?

    • Other ideas about what makes good verde, yes. But you didn’t have this stuff. We’re not talking about different flavor. We’re talking about ZERO FLAVOR. And this isn’t exaggeration for effect. The stuff was utterly without any flavor of any sort.

      I guess I could theorize that the kitchen was having a bad night, but if they’re capable of that degree of inconsistency, that’s a reason not to go there, as well.