This week on WMFE-FM, I chat with 90.7's Nicole Creston about online restaurant review resources. Listen in at 5:45 p.m. Friday or 9:35 Saturday morning. Or, click this link to hear this segment and past podcasts.
It used to be that the only regular source for restaurant reviews was the local newspaper and maybe a magazine or two. I was just fine with that because for 20 years I was the restaurant critic for a newspaper. Around 2007-2008, I started to notice that online resources were beginning to become more prominent. And I was just fine with that because in 2008 I left the Sentinel to start ScottJosephOrlando.com. (Actually, one of the deciding factors in my choosing to leave was the growing popularity of Yelp, which collected reviews of restaurants and other businesses from their customers. I figured it was only a matter of time before my employer saw that people were writing reviews of restaurants for free -- why would they continue to pay me?)
Now there are myriad resources for restaurant reviews, including the aforementioned Yelp, and others, such as Zagat and Urbanspoon, that aggregate multiple reviews. So instead of having just one opinion -- say, a professional restaurant critic -- you have the collective thoughts of several people, sometimes dozens or hundreds depending on the business.
I use both Urbanspoon and Yelp, not only as a reader but as a participant. (Zagat, which has been aggregating reviews since before there was an Internet, now has a large online presence, but the majority of what they offer is behind a paywall and requires subscription to use.) They work somewhat similarly, but they have some differences, too. Yelp is strictly reviews from customers; Urbanspoon segments reviews for a particular restaurant by those that are professionally published -- newspapers, magazines and others, such as my reviews -- dedicated food blogs, and then diners. Urbanspoon collects the professional reviews; bloggers indicate they would like to have their review included in the listing for a restaurant by inserting a line of code, provided by Urbanspoon, into their posts; and diners leave reviews by logging onto the site. Diner reviews rarely include the reviewer’s full name, usually just a first name or a pseudonym. Diners also can summarize their reviews by saying they like it or don’t like it.
Yelp reviews -- which are available for businesses and services other than just restaurants -- are user generated only, although you may find a professional in there every now and then. Then again, you may not know it because most reviewers are identified only by a first name and last initial. Restaurants can be rated with one to five stars. The problem there is that the scale of rating that, say, Justin T. uses may be different from the one used by Ian S.
But here’s something I find useful with Yelp: you can click on the name of a reviewer and see all of his or her reviews together. You can see if they are always raving, five-star thumb-uppers or heavily weighted on the negative side. If you find a reviewer you like and feel you can trust, you can follow him and see all of his reviews.
Veracity is a big question mark with user generated reviews, and many must be taken with the proverbial grain of salt -- a big, honkin’ grain. An article on the front page of today’s New York Times discusses the problem of businesses that pay customers to leave positive reviews about their products. Although the article was not about restaurants, the problem of undeserved reviews -- whether positive or negative -- is one that these aggregating sites constantly deal with. Restaurant owners and staffers have been known to leave anonymous yet glowing reviews for their own establishments, and it isn’t unheard of for competitors to leave a negative comment.
Sometimes its a matter of knowing what to look for in order to spot a fake review. The Consumerist, a blog site operated by Consumer Reports, published this article, 30 ways you can spot fake online reviews, with several more left by commenters of the article. Yelp has taken it a step further. It has developed an algorithm to filter out both positive and negative reviews. The reviews aren’t deleted -- you can find them at the bottom of a page of reviews. For example, at the bottom of the first page of reviews for Kres is a line that gives the count for the number of published reviews then, in parentheses, 21 filtered. Click on that link and you can read the filtered reviews. Yelp won’t give away any of the details about its algorithm, but apparently using lots of exclamation points is a red flag.
The key to all of these reviews is learning how to gauge your taste with the taste of the reviewers, which has always been the case, even when talking about professional critics.
Which brings me to the other category: food bloggers. There are a number of fellow floggers out there. Wordpress, Blogger and other platforms make it easy and cheap for just about anyone to throw up (and I use those words advisedly) a food reviewing website. But it takes dedication to keep it going. For the most part, these are sites that are operated by people who have day jobs, but a love of food and dining fuels their passion into something that is more than just a hobby.
In the three years that I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen some floggers come on strong only to peter out. It’s hard to establish credibility, let alone a following, when reviews are posted months apart. But there are a few that I’ve been impressed with for their subject knowledge and their quality, both in terms of writing and in the way it looks, including often stellar photography.
TastyChomps is rated the number one food blog by Urbanspoon. Its owner, Ricky Ly, has a keen sense of food and his reviews are well-crafted and educating.
The site has a neat and clean look to it, and Ly’s photography appropriately illustrates the subject.
Megayummo’s owner is Pearleen Do Buchala, whose photographs alone can make you drool. In fact, restaurants have been known to snag Buchala’s photos off of her site to put on their own, usually without asking permission or giving credit (which, it should be mentioned, is not only not cool but also an infringement of copyright). But her reviews -- which are augmented by others, including her husband, Al -- also include delicious descriptions.
Eat Local Orlando is the project of Chris Roberts, who has nice descriptive reviews of restaurants but also has a special affinity for Orlando’s food truck scene.
There are others, and there will be more to come. And it’s all good. Watch, too, for changes to the Zagat system. The company was purchased last year by Google for a reported $151 million, so they obviously see value in local content.
And if anyone from Google is reading, call me.