Yelp is Voldemort

Any Death Eater worth his snake tattoo knows that He Who Must Not Be Named’s greatest trick was turning his adversaries into the bad guys without anyone realizing it had happened.

To the average consumer, Yelp is a powerful tool that gives invaluable information in an easy to consume format that appears to be reliable. Unfortunately, even a muggle can smell trouble, when you give the kind of power to a single entity like Yelp. It breeds an arrogance that appears like a lack of concern for the consequences to their constituency -- those of us that toil in the restaurant industry.

Here’s the awesome irony: They also want you to advertise on their platform.

While I don’t want to take the Harry Potter references too far, there are at least some analogies to the way the Wizarding World fell under the control of the most evil wizard of all time. So indulge me my geekdom as I deliver you evidence that Yelp = Voldemort.

Yelp is Voldemort

Employee management

Let’s start with the treatment of poor Lucius Malfoy. He was a loyal supporter, but he was humiliated in the most public of ways. Recently, there were two similar incidents that prompted Yelp to take the low road and prove their dedication to dark wizardry.

Start first with the young woman who complained on about how low her wages were. The leadership team at Yelp decided it would be better to terminate her rather than work with her and their other employees to devise a livable wage in San Francisco (the most expensive city in the US). I won’t blather on here about corporate overlords and profit driven leadership, but suffice to say, Yelp makes money. It wouldn’t have killed them to manage this with some compassion. They didn’t and they got excoriated for it.

Yelp has been awful in their treatment of employees and ex-employees

The second incident, while far less nuanced, is equally as horrifying. Another woman was terminated and used to air her frustration. Yelp’s reaction was to post specific information about her work performance on Twitter.

Hello, leadership? Why not just, take a deep breath and make a measured statement that didn’t trash her? You are a multi-billion dollar company. You can’t win by dissing a former staff person.

Applying their own morality

As you may recall, when the Dark Lord took over the Ministry of Magic, all the Unforgiveable Curses were socially acceptable. While I can’t call Yelps “algorithm” that removes what it deems “fraudulent” reviews unforgiveable, I can say it has caused them an enormous amount of backlash. For years they wouldn’t even give the slightest insight into how reviews were chosen for deletion. They now allow a limited look into the black box, but it’s still mysterious.

It hasn’t helped that they have pending litigation that claims they were withholding positive reviews in lieu of advertising. Anyone that has been told by a guest that they will be writing a glowing review and never saw it materialize has serious concerns about that.

More recently, they have employed lobbyists in an attempt to create shield laws that would protect reviewers from legal action for libel. What happened to the wide eyed idealists that started the company? They wanted to create a place where you could reliably find reviews on the marketplace. It was supposed to be platform that would benefit both consumers and business owners, but now it’s become contentious and frustrating. Much like our young Tom Riddle, who lost his way, it feels like Yelp is missing some of the humility that kept Harry Potter pure of heart.

Jeremy Stoppelman’s abrasive character

Just as Mr. Olivander referred to the Dark Lord as great, it’s hard to not admit that Jeremy Stoppelman is someone to be reckoned with in our industry…and a helluva lot of other ones for that matter.

Jeremy Stoppelman 

Jeremy Stoppelman 

He started Yelp, built a business, took it public and now employs thousands of workers. Anyone that has any ambition should be jealous of that resume. (I know I am.) That being said, you can tell a lot about a person by the character of their company.

Take for example, another star in our industry, Sally Smith. She rose from the ranks at Buffalo Wild Wings (BWW) into its CEO position. She has overseen an incredible expansion that didn’t dilute the quality of the product. Additionally, she has developed an incredibly strong team and unparalleled brand awareness. BWW is the place to go in many consumers mind for a great sports bar experience. It’s her leadership that has allowed those achievements.

What we know of Yelp’s leadership so far doesn’t acquit Mr. Stoppelman of much. Between their bungling of the various HR issues to his own super combative Reddit AMA, he has shown a fair amount of callousness to the market, his employees and even his customers. I have to acknowledge that he totally deserves to be on the America’s Top 50 Most Influential People in Food, but that’s because he is infamous.

In the Reddit AMA, Mr. Stoppelman referred to a study that claims only 16% of Yelp reviews are fraudulent. Was that a boast? If 16% of your dinner dishes were dropped you would be out of business. In another response on his AMA, he referred to those that claim Yelp is extorting businesses are suffering from The Woozle Effect.

Lawsuits, lawsuits, lawsuits

To be honest, I lost interest when I got my tenth story of legal action against Yelp as I researched for this piece. Most of those suits are between a consumer/reviewer and a business. There have been a couple of class action suits. It’s really important to note that Yelp themselves have fared well in the suits they are involved. However, they are the subject of over 2,000 FTC complaints and sure do evoke strong feelings from the businesses that are forced to deal with their influence.

Just as they never really pinned anything on Snape’s old boss, so has Yelp escaped any real damage. However, they have done so with little grace. It’s especially maddening when you consider that the businesses that Yelp holds this power over are also their customers. When it comes to digital strategy for marketing your restaurant, you really can’t ignore their relevance. It may be painful, but Yelp can do some good for your business. Their free services allow you to keep your profile up to date and respond to reviews. I know I’d rather have a platform to do that than lose a customer I never knew was upset.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I use it regularly as a consumer and have even written a few reviews. Also, I never had any real issue with it as an operator. I get the outrage, but we have to be honest, what is the alternative?

Yes, they are in-gracious, but that’s because they have a complicated role in our country’s commerce now. They serve multiple masters and are trying to maintain some order. Could they do it without destroying people? That would be nice. You have to almost believe the overall coarse demeanor is proof they have integrity. Who would treat their customers so roughly if they had a choice?

So when somebody asks me if I had ever seen Yelp and Voldemort in the same room, I honestly couldn’t say I have. Yelp = Voldemort, true or not? You tell me!