How to Understand Yelp Ratings at a Glance

When I woke up this morning, I knew it was post day for my Paso Gurl blog. I wanted to do another installment of my Yelp series, but I couldn’t decide if I should focus on customers or business owners. Yelp was created as a service for consumers to give recommendations, so I’m going to cover that first and share some things I’ve learned from my own experience as an Elite Yelper with a 5-year badge. (I’m so proud of that 5-year badge). When you see a rating for a business, how do you know if it is credible? I’m going to explain my own method of deciding how to choose. 


Yelp is a consumer service. It was created in 2004 for people to ask for recommendations, and people would “email” their responses. How cute, huh? The idea was to “improve on the Yellow Pages”.   Without any coaxing, people started writing reviews on businesses using a feature that was pretty much buried on the site because developers didn’t think anyone would use it. It ended up changing the platform from asking friends for recommendations to users recommending things to the wider world.  I am not surprised by this, as I’ve always wanted to be a restaurant critic, and I guess 170 million others must feel the same way.  


There’s more to that rating than meets the eye.

Even if you never write a review in your life, you can still use Yelp to find local businesses. The majority of the Yelp reviews are for restaurants. A typical scenario goes like this: a couple rolls into a new town and wants to know the best place for dinner. They open Yelp and type in the city they are in. A list of businesses pops up, usually restaurants, but it will also include other areas of local interest- museums, landmarks, hiking trails, etc.  But we will use restaurants as an example.  Which do you choose? There a few tricks I use to determine whether a rating is credible. First of all, how many reviews does the business have? It could have 5-star rating with 20 reviews, or it could be a 4-star rating with 400 reviews. Which one would you consider more credible? The Yelp algorithm is very complicated (and mysterious). What we do know is that it weeds out a lot of these unreliable reviews (about 25% of all reviews don’t make the cut). But, like any other algorithm, it’s not 100% reliable, so I look a little deeper when I’m trying to decide where to go. 


·     Friends and relatives or disgruntled one-off-ers?

Well, I always take a look at WHO is rating a business 5 stars. Yelp does a good job of weeding out what they call “ranters” (people who only leave negative reviews, usually after a one-off mishap). Sometimes the users with a single, negative review will come through.  Besides the one-offs, there are some people you just can’t please.  As a Yelp user, you’re going to recognize them (if you don’t want to be one of those people, I’ll talk about how to avoid that in another post).  Unless I see several reviews with the same complaints, I would consider a ranter’s review unreliable.  There also some positive reviews that are biased and not reliable. And sometimes, friends or relatives of a business will leave positive reviews in hopes of boosting the rating. They are usually users with 1 or 2 total reviews. Again, the algorithm can spot those and put them in a “not recommended” review file, but they sometimes come through. When I signed up 10 years ago, Yelp would not publish a users’ reviews until they had written like 15 or so reviews.  With a little experience you can tell those reviews from more credible, unbiased reviews.  


·     Competitors Another type of unreliable negative review is the one that comes from the friends of, or even the competitors themselves. Oftentimes they will even say, “ you should go to business X instead”. Again, these are usually from profiles with 1 or 2 reviews. I always ask “why did they pick this business to leave their lone review?” If I can’t come up with a good reason by looking at their profile, then I don’t take it into consideration. 


·     Paid reviewers as much as Yelp prohibits it,  I suspect some businesses do pay people to leave positive reviews for them. This speaks to how much influence Yelpers really have. Again, look for number of reviews, I have personal rule to check the users reviews if they have under 20 reviews. It only takes a second, and all you have to do is click on the star under the user’s name. I skim through and look to see if  there is a common denominator in the reviews? (this doesn’t always mean anything, a lot of people travel frequently and review places everywhere they go), but are the places reviewed mostly in the same part of town? Are there positive reviews for one business, but negative reviews for all their competitors? If they are scattered all over in random neighborhoods and maybe groups of similar businesses with one positive and the others negative, I find the profile suspicious. 


·     Fake profiles Another indicator of credibility of a Yelp profile for me is their use of the platform. Do they have a real profile name and photo? Do they have photos from their experiences with restaurants or other businesses? Yelp does not make it difficult to create a profile and leave reviews. That can be a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you want to make it easy for people to share their experience, but on the other hand, it’s pretty easy for someone to create a fake profile. For that reason, to make a reliable assessment of a business, you want to look at little closer than just the star rating under the business name.

·      Have things gone downhill? One last thing I would look at is recent reviews.  Are the older reviews really good and more recent ones bad? 

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This all sounds like a pretty complicated “At A Glance” list, right? Well, here’s the trick: Yelp allows you to sort the recommended reviews by their selection, newest, oldest, highest and lowest rating and (the most reliable ever)- reviews by Elites.  So… to answer my question above- about the 5-star with a few reviews and the 4-star with hundreds, I would probably go with the 4-star based on the number of experiences shared. Drop me a line if you have questions, I love Yelp and love to hang out with Yelpers and would love to nominate new Elites. SYOY (See You On Yelp!)

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