Yelp is 10 years old — the scourge of the Internet, one of the most feared institutions of modern life. Totally unregulated, totally unreliable, protected by the courts as expressions of free speech, detested as capricious by restaurant owners (and other businesses, as well), yet fawned over like a spoiled child.
It has spawned an industry of consultants and intermediaries who charge hefty fees to manage a restaurant’s social media reputation, but the best advocate for a kinder, gentler Yelp is available to all with a cheerful smile, for free: the local “Community Engagement” manager.
For starters, her name is Katy Hewitson, she’s been in Seattle for eight years, and her job is to help local businesses cope with the faceless, unknowable algorithms behind Yelp reviews. Note that she doesn’t sell ads; instead, she teaches business owners how to tame the rough beast of social media, how to encourage the good and manage the inevitable bumps.
Behind the scenes
Here, now, for the first time, a look behind the scenes at Yelp, according to Hewitson: “Morning: Check email, check-social media accounts (Yelp, FB, Twitter, Instagram).
“Late morning/afternoon: On any given day, I’ll meet with two to four business owners throughout the day. Sometimes, the meetings are more Yelp 101 meetings, where I explain how Yelp works, teach the business how to claim their free business owner page, how to respond to reviews, how to create check-in offers, add photos, etc.
“Other times, these meetings are meetings about our community and the Yelp events I plan and host. So the discussion will be less about how to use Yelp and more about how to host an event with Yelp’s community members.
“The events are a marketing push for businesses to expose themselves and their brand to our community of Yelp users.…Yelp hosts events in 30 countries around the world. In Seattle, I plan and host anywhere from one to five events per month for an average of 100 guests. Then, a few times a year, I’ll plan larger events for 500 to 1,000 guests.
“Late afternoon: online time. I check out Yelp locally and chime in on our Talk boards. I engage with users. I look at the site and new business pages to make sure everything’s in working order.
“I’m also spending time looking up new events, new potential partners and looking for sponsorship opportunities — whether it’s partnering with LLAA (Lifelong AIDS Alliance) on the Seattle AIDS Walk or partnering on food truck festivals, events with the Washington Bartenders Guild or partnering with the Mariners and other local brands and businesses.
“In the evenings, I’ll have events to attend, like soft openings, spirit tastings or charity events that Yelp sponsors and supports. On a free evening, I’ll work on the weekly Yelp newsletter that goes out to our local subscribers every Wednesday.
“I also keep checking Yelp and social media feeds throughout the day to stay on top of what’s going on with Yelp and our community. I also read local blogs, take note of local food trends, grand openings and local happenings in the city.
Not all about eating
The surprise (when I looked into it) is that most of the reviews are not for restaurants at all. In fact, restaurants account for only one in five Yelp reviews.
Two-thirds of them are four- and five-star ratings. About a quarter of all reviews are for shopping.
Most readers put more credence in the content of a review than in the rating.
Four out of 10 Yelp users make more than $100,000 a year.
Yes, there are algorithms written by Yelp engineers that flag reviews suspected of being hit jobs by competitors or jobs by paid fluffers. On any given day, some 40,000 reviews are held up or removed by Yelp staffers, due to the unfathomable algorithms or to flags from customers or business owners. Hewitson says she doesn’t have anything to do with that part of the company.
How fare locally?
And how satisfied are our residents with their neighborhood restaurants? It turns out, they’re quite pleased.
The top-scoring restaurant, not surprisingly, is the excellent Harvest Vine (2701 E. Madison St.), but newcomer Ras Dashaw (2801 E. Cherry St.) shows surprising strength.
On the Leschi waterfront, lots of love for Alicia (200 Lake Washington Blvd.).
On the fringe of the Central Area, Central Pizza (2901 S. Jackson St.) has plenty of fans and rivals longtime fave Independent Pizza (4230 E. Madison St).
This could be a self-fulfilling prophecy, of course. Since the area is relatively isolated, the neighborhood doesn’t get a lot of drive-by diners (or coupon-clippers) who tend to carp and complain. But it’s good to know that local residents appreciate their local restaurants, Yelp or no Yelp.
RONALD HOLDEN is a restaurant writer who blogs at Cornichon.org and Crosscut.com. To comment on this column, write to MPTimes@nwlink.com.