I'm writing this from Ojai, Ca tonight. I'm in Ojai on vacation, a no-work vacation or distraction free if you like.
After getting settled at my hotel, The Emerald Iguana Inn, I needed to get out and about, find something to eat and drink. I didn't hesitate to pull out my phone and start searching up local establishments. I find myself searching Google Maps first, just to get a quick read of what's close and walkable. I scan the reviews and they're mostly positive, helpful, and I can make a choice.
I'm talking about reviews because my dear friend, Rebecca, asked me what I thought about this video where Bourdain shares what he thinks about Yelp and Elite Yelpers (spoiler alert: It's not a very positive opinion). I looked at the video and it hit me in a couple of ways, you see.
Review systems are common, we all use them, often, without thinking about them. I always feel myself bristle while reading reviews and I couldn't figure out why. I've used reviews countless times to inform my purchase and eating decisions. I can tell a helpful review from a troll-ish one, too.
The thing is, reviews are the first layer of information that people go for when looking up what to do and where to go. And that's their sole bit of information they rely on before they pull the trigger.
I think that's sad. I know, I know; this is all just an opinion, my opinion. Why does my opinion matter? It doesn't. I'm not college-educated, I don't have an intense love for a specific type of food or drink. About the only thing that I do like is a good story.
Small Businesses and Reviews
One thing I do is that I volunteer with the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) once per week. I love small businesses. I really do. I'm the pretentious turd of a person who will take a few steps out of my way to support a local shop, or at least one that is involved in their community. It matters to me.
As a volunteer at the SBDC, I help business owners with pretty much all things digital marketing and strategy. Most business owners are addled by the online review. Whether it's Yelp or Google My Business, small biz owners have strong opinions about them. I always ask the business owners I speak to: What do you think of online reviews? Many folks shrug, some have a visibly irritated and frustrated reaction. They complain that, in the case of Yelp, many positive reviews are set to Not Recommended. Yelp says that some reviews are placed their due to the reviewer being less established or potentially having bias etc. It's at their discretion completely as to what reviews go there and when or if they are ever moved up with the rest of the non-flagged reviews.
While Yelp states that they have a good reason for why they flag certain reviews, I have seen how they use those reviews as a stick to get businesses to signup for their ad programs. Twice in 2017 I've seen fed-up biz owners signup for ads and within months find those previously flagged reviews suddenly show up with the rest of their reviews. It's sketchy as fuck!!
I think Yelp can go to extra hell, to be honest.
Google My Business doesn't outwardly appear to engage in this practice but I think that their reviews can be harmful, too. I say this as a Level 8 Local Guide. I know, I'm a big fucking deal around here.
Let's be real, none of us really knows how reviews affect a website's search engine rankings. Review platforms tend to claim many top spots for a variety of popular searches for things you might be interested in that are locally based. I often see my results littered with Yelp discussions on lists of things to eat or drink — or I'll scope out reviews from Trip Advisor or other similarly annoying services that have reviews as part of their platform.
I'm seriously done with reviews and feedback platforms. I know that these are the byproduct of an ever increasing global movement to share information but man, I'm exhausted. I really don't give a shit about what many people say about one place. I really only care what a couple of people, or even just what one person says about a place.
Curation vs. Reviews
In our world, the review serves as a barometer of quality that we can quickly use to make a decision right away; these reviews are cobbled together so we can get a range of opinions on a given product or service. Reviews are great but they're not perfect (I don't really want to discuss why they're not perfect and how to improve them). Many times, people jump in, leave a review or a rant or a love letter and get the fuck out. I want more than that.
I just want a simplified experience from someone who has done their homework, someone who cares about a thing more than I do and who can give me feedback that really means something.
I think reviews are a way for someone to provide quick and honest feedback about their limited experience with something. Someone who is a "curator" doesn't necessarily have that on their LinkedIn as a job title. Someone who curates their experiences is someone, in my opinion, who cares about the stories, about the why, and they want to learn. They want to add something to their consciousness that didn't previously exist. Perhaps that's my definition because that's what I want to do myself.
It's my opinion that reviews really do leave out many lesser known, less-well-marketed businesses. How? Again, I'm not sure. But with over 90% of people looking at reviews before making a decision, the devil lies in those statistics somewhere. People are more likely to pass on the family owned hole in the wall because it has a three and a half star rating rather than a four or five.
I don't have a clear solution on how to solve for this but I have an idea. I believe that humans are the best barometer. Humans who care about stories, about experiences, and who seek these things out with aplomb and have no expectations and leave their biases at home as best they can.
Support your local bloggers; support your local news and event writers; support the art of conversation; and support the art of being childishly curious and ask people what they care about.
Maybe your questions lead you to your next adventure.