Online Reviews: Now We’re All Critics

February 21, 2012

Stanley’s Northeast Bar Room, my favorite bar in Northeast Minneapolis, has been rated 38 times on the popular review site Yelp. It currently boasts a respectable three-and-a-half stars out of five.

The positive reviews call attention to the bar’s lively neighborhood atmosphere, its rotating beer list, its lengthy happy hour and the friendly wait staff.

The negative reviews are more nuanced:

  • “They have a good beer list, but do something with it that annoys me more than anything when it comes to ordering drinks. The prices listed on the beer menu do not include tax. This does two things. First, after I get my tab, it is a little more than I expected. Second, three beers cost something like $16.39 instead of $15.00.”
  • “Between the barkeep fumbling with pronunciations of common craft beers (Lagunitas), and telling us the dark colored ones weren’t his favorite (swear to God), I was less than impressed.  To boot he looked like he was about 23 and liked to fist pump.”
  • “Another reviewer is right: This place is clean. Too clean. Let it be known: Stanley’s has been neutered.”

Consumers are a fickle bunch. (Understatement much?) That’s why I don’t put any stock into Yelp or online reviews in general. There’s too many biases and foibles at play, and half the time I’m left to wonder if competing brands aren’t posing as reviewers to sully the good name of a rival company or product.

I bring it up because a Monday article in the Star Tribune proclaimed the increased relevance of social media in consumer habits based on several fancy new studies. The idea goes that online reviews are hugely influential in our consumer decision-making process, whether its searching for a place to grab sushi or comparing tablets. It’s the democratization of expertise. It’s the chance to allow your experience to shape the experience of others.

And it’s malarkey.

I don’t trust the opinions of people I don’t know, especially when they’re liable to complain about tax being excluded from a beer menu or a young bartender’s enthusiasm for fist-pumping or an establishment’s overt cleanliness. By the same respect, I don’t imagine my love for Stanley’s to influence how others feel about the joint.

I’m OK with that!

If I am interested in trying a new restaurant or, say, purchasing a pair of headphones, I’m going in blind. I might read into logistics and specifications, but that’s where it ends. Perhaps that makes me a foolish consumer. Fine. But I would rather make a poor decision on my own volition than go on the opinion of Mark S. from Schenectady.

What about you? How frequently do you rely upon Yelp and other online reviews? Do you find online reviews to be reliable? Finally, do you post your own reviews through social media?

[Photo courtesy Longman & Eagle in Chicago. The postcard was derived from a one-star review of the restaurant on Yelp.]