So far today I have inundated with congratulations on my birthday. Don’t people realize that at a certain age, we would rather forget than remember. However, valuable presents will be gratefully received. Thank you, I‘m just kidding, I really do appreciate your wishes.
We have discussed before in this newsletter how 75% plus of reviews on sites like Amazon, and Yelp are fake. Well, this is a story of how one small business owner flipped the online review ecosystem on its head.
Chef Davide Cerretini’s Bay Area Italian Botto Bistro, like all other restaurants, was enslaved to so called online reviewers who could make or break you. He’d had a gut full. It was time to get free from the extortion, review manipulation, and predatory advertising tactics he saw from Yelp. Cerretini had been an early adopter of Yelp where a mere half-star difference in a restaurant’s rating could increase peak-hour foot traffic by as much as 19%.
After Botto Bistro’s opening, Yelp aggressively tried to sell him ads. When he rebuffed them, he noticed 5-star reviews would be removed from his page. Cerretini says Yelp was manipulating reviews. It was a protection racket. So he wrote himself 5-star reviews to replace the real ones they removed. Eventually, he relented, spending $270 per month to advertise his business on Yelp. But after 6 months, he cancelled. Again, his 5-star reviews were filtered from his page, and 1-star reviews from people who “never even set foot in my restaurant” were suddenly on the top of the page. Cerretini realized Yelp was completely controlling his reputation. He was pissed!
He came to a realization: “What if I don’t give a shit about reputation? What if I take away their power by actually making it worse?” So, he placed a simple sign in front of Botto Bistro… Give us a one star review on Yelp and get 25% off any pizza! Hate us on Yelp. (The discount was later increased to 50%.)
His protest came at a perfect time. Days earlier, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled Yelp had the right to manipulate reviews, and its advertising tactics were a form of “hard bargaining” — not extortion. Small business owners were furious and looking for a vigilante hero. That Friday, he was greeted by an “avalanche” of journalists, fellow restaurant owners, and supporters and did more business than he typically did in an entire month. Most supporters refused to take the discount, but were thrilled to write a review.
In a few days, Botto Bistro’s Yelp page attracted more than 2,300 1-star ratings (95% of its total reviews) extolling the good food, proper service, and rustic ambiance. “Botto Bistro sucks,” wrote one reviewer. “Delicious food priced fairly. One star.” This earned the restaurant the distinction of being the worst-rated restaurant on Yelp. He got thousands and thousands of letters, thousands of emails a day. People sent cash, checks.
Yelp was not pleased. Yelp claimed he was exchanging reviews for “incentives” (a discount on pizza), a violation of the platform’s Terms of Service. Cerretini posted the emails publicly on social media. Many business owners have now put “NO YELPERS” signs in their windows, shamed rude reviewers on Instagram, and launched anti-Yelp websites.
While business owners say Yelp is a “Mafia” that extorts them by manipulating star ratings, Yelp says the extortion claims are really just a “misconception” about how Yelp’s recommendation software works. Yelp is undeniably aggressive in its sales tactics (85% of its ad revenue comes from small businesses) and reviews on the platform do, indeed, frequently fluctuate.
Cerretini has forged a career out of his 1-star publicity becoming a celebrity in the restaurant scene. Yelp calls the act of defiance a publicity stunt that had a negligible impact on their operations. On occasion, he’ll screw around by changing his listed business hours, or renaming Botto Bistro “The Worst Chinese Food in the World.”
Sure seems like the kind of guy I’d love to have a pizza and a drink with.
Venison for dinner again? Oh deer!