What would you expect to see on Yelp’s yearly “Top 100” restaurant list? Would it be that haute cuisine restaurant in downtown San Francisco that costs $500 per person? Or maybe that trendy cafe in Brooklyn that’s so hip, you have to wait 3 hours just to get a table?
You’d probably be surprised if you saw the real list. There are indeed some cutting-edge entries, but there are also places like the corner store-meets-coffee shop tucked into a corner of San Francisco’s Inner Sunset neighborhood and a seafood truck in Maine. At the coveted #1 spot? A small BBQ restaurant in Big Pine, California. Copper Top BBQ’s Yelp page shows a 5-star average rating, which is laudable. But as a Slate article pointed out, there’s something else going on here. Being #1 on Yelp’s list does not mean that Copper Top is necessarily the top restaurant in the country. It means it is the top restaurant for satisfying a Yelp user’s needs.
Yelp reviews run on a star system, like so many other ratings systems we encounter. But ratings systems inherently bring issues: people interpret the options differently, some people consistently low-ball or high-ball, people choose ratings based on outlier experiences. The idea is that eventually those things will balance out. But as other research has shown, more than 40% of Yelp reviews are 5-star ratings. That suggests that people are using the 5-star option to mean something other than “extraordinary.” Slate’s Will Oremus broke this down, dissecting why certain restaurants thrive on Yelp and others don’t – even if they’re critically acclaimed.
Oremus’ analysis leads to a number of interesting hypotheses. For starters, restaurants do really well on Yelp when they provide good quality, for good value. Most people using Yelp are not frequenting fine dining establishments and simply want their needs met, for a good price. In fact, it seems like one of the biggest drivers for good ratings is a lack of disappointment. If you get what you want, without hassle, it’s a net good experience. In that case, a good rating on Yelp becomes a symbol of checking the right boxes, rather than a symbol of extraordinariness. Oremus also noticed that a lot of the “top-performing” restaurants are local establishments with focused menus. So there is less chance for error, in a way: people are more likely to order something they will like, and more likely to get what they expected. There are also more “top restaurants” from specific geographic areas, which Oremus attributes to the fact that quantity of reviews factors into how the list is built.
I don’t think that the way people use Yelp should stop us from “trusting” its reviews. In fact, this all makes a lot of sense. I am someone who chases innovative foods and unique flavors, so when I use Yelp, I often do want to see the most “unique” options and not just the most “satisfying” options. But “unique” isn’t necessarily the best way to judge the overall value of a restaurant. Most of the time, there’s a lot to be said for stable, reliable places to eat, and I don’t think they get nearly enough credit for what they provide. For that alone, I think it’s great that this list gives us a different perspective than the types of rankings we usually see.