Reviews, Politics and Big Earl’s

OK Big Earl and his staff are cretins. That can be agreed.

They have managed, by virtue of being outspoken, bigoted and unthinking, to have put themselves in the middle of a media maelstrom and a subsequent flame war in the world of reviews.

The story, first reported by KLTV on May 27th, noted that a gay couple had fallen prey to the posted anti gay policy of the restaurant:

That waitress who used a derogatory term is Earl’s daughter.

“She’s a young lady, didn’t know what else to say, and they just kept on and she finally said we just don’t like fags,” he[r father] explained.

The story went viral, hitting most online news services earlier this month. While the reporting has died down, the review war seems to be just starting up. And yesterday it was reported that Yelp had publicly declared that these types of reviews were going to be taken down.

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 4.12.39 PMI was curious to see how much activity there was on the review sites about this and given Yelp’s response, to get a sense of whether the other sites themselves had responded to the issue in any way.

I looked at how many old reviews existed before the incident and how many new reviews were placed after the incident and whether they were supportive or not of Big Earl.

Total Visible 5 star New 1 Star New Removed Old Reviews
Superpages 11 8 3 0
Google 6/4 102 19 82 1
Google 6/6 3 0 3 99 0
Tripadvisor 10 0 9 1
YP.com 11 0 7 2
Yelp 3 0 2 930 1
Facebook 193 60 133 0

 

The stats are interesting and say a lot about the review world that we currently live in. People obviously have no qualms about expressing their opinions about a political issue via reviews.  And as you can see on their Facebook page, have no qualms calling each other names in a public forum.

Clearly due to Yelp’s demographics, they are first place where a protest review of this sort might go and it’s apparently on the order of 5X more likely a spot than Facebook and 10X more likely than Google. Tripadvisor, YP.com and Superpages are also rans in this race.

Also it is interesting that of the 930 reviews removed by Yelp I only saw one favoring Big Earl (to be honest I got tired of looking after checking several hundreds of them).  This would jive with my research indicating that Yelpers are younger and more urban and obviously in strong support of gay rights.

Facebook, while not having anywhere near the volume of reviews of Yelp, certainly had many more review comments and of the three sites they had the most supporters on a % basis of Big Earl. It is also intriguing that there were more reviews there than at Google. It could very well be that when no one was looking Facebook has built out a decent sized review corpus. Uncurated for sure and perhaps less than stellar quality but big none the less.  ( Note: I am unable to load the page this am so perhaps it has been taken down?)

Google users seem to skew closer to Yelp than Facebook in political view. Although because of the lack of transparency of their filter we don’t really know if any reviews have yet been pulled downs.

Update 6/6 1:45 PM: Dave spotted the fact that Google has removed most of the reviews as of noon today. Interesting that they left 3 new reviews and removed the one review from a year ago. The 3 reviews they left are all somewhat suspect.

It would appear, although it isn’t certain in Google’s case, that most of the review sites have not removed these reviews.

It certainly raises some interesting questions:

Should review sites be used as a political forum?

Should these obviously political reviews be left to stand regardless of the fact that they never visited the business?

Does it make sense, as a political act, to use reviews as a forum?

What should the review sites do in response to a situations like this?

I certainly have my own opinions on these issues but I would love to hear yours. So before you read on, take  a moment and think about what you think makes sense in the review world for readers, for the sites themselves and for any political/social movement that might think about using reviews in this way…..

Let me respond to the political issues first. For the most part I think that while anybody has the right to use a review forum to express their social views, in this case I think it is counterproductive. Once the story went viral the world was able to see that Big Earl and his staff were remnants of the stone age. But by carrying it forward into an ongoing protest on the review sites, Big Earl’s continued to receive publicity that in the end will increase his sales and will, amongst his target audience, improve his standing and not diminish it. The votes using reviews are likely to have the exact opposite affect on Big Earl than the reviewers would hope. They may send a signal to other establishments about the collective desire of society to not see this behavior and that might deter a few places from behaving the same in the future but it is just as likely to incent those that see it as an opportunity to rise above the noise to garner publicity. Generally a fail.

From the point of view of the review reader, having one real and negative review may be all that they need to see to decide that this isn’t the place for them. The rest just becomes entertainment for voyeurs and trolls.

From the POV of the top review sites themselves, they each have a different agenda when it comes to reviews so maybe their different behaviors are consistent with that.

Facebook wants engagement. Apparently any kind of engagement. This certainly leads to that with a  tit for tat review and comment stream that speaks to the basest of human behaviors. At some point Facebook might decide that a quality review corpus is a benefit to their readers and their ranking but for now, it appears that is just one more way to garner interaction.

For Google, who view reviews as a data point as well as content that helps their readers and who is slow to curate reviews, it is likely that many of the off topic reviews will be removed at some point. They haven’t been yet. That could be because it has yet to have the algo hit the page or perhaps the curation is slow. We shall see. Regardless it seems not in their interest to fan the flames in this situation.

Yelp who treats reviews as curated content and staunchly protects their view that a review should be a first hand experience implemented their standard “pull it down” policy both via algo and obvious human intervention very quickly. I, for one, laud both the quick take downs AND the fact that the reviews that are removed are still visible.

I think from a ecosystem point of view, the interesting tidbit to me is that Facebook has made such a strong play in reviews while essentially being under the radar. I realize that Big Earl’s case is but anecdotal but amongst a number of my clients I have seen a similar increase in local reviews there. One wonders how FB plans on using and highlighting these in the future.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Reviews, Politics and Big Earl's by

22 thoughts on “Reviews, Politics and Big Earl’s”

  1. If the reviews are talking about a factually-documented issue, then I would think that Yelp’s desire to shine the light of transparency on every small business would let these stand. But it’s new territory and I’m sure they don’t want the PR hurting their already damaged reputation among SMBs.

  2. Yelp’s statement: Though we understand this business has recently received media attention and that users may have strong opinions, Yelp reviews should be focused on everyday customer experiences with a business; we think this is an important requirement for keeping Yelp a useful site for consumer reviews. While you are welcome to post your comments on Yelp Talk, please note that at this time we will be removing any repostings from you to this business listing.

    Hasn’t that been their long standing policy basis? Yelp reviews should be focused on everyday customer experiences with a business. I know that they removed a spam attack against blumenthals upon request. Seems similar to me and consistent with their previous actions.

    It appears that today, Facebook took the whole page down. I am curious about that.

  3. Mike, David: On one context this is not new territory. I believe you were aware of the Google plus review controversy for Max’s delicatessen in Birmingham, Alabama.

    The story received national press coverage. It occurred in 2011. The relatively huge volume of reviews, virtually all politically inspired were aggregated during the last several months of 2011. Then it seemed to die away…at least in terms of aggregating new reviews. I don’t believe the controversy spread…or spread on a significant level to other review sites.

    Go to the reviews. There are many…both anti Max’s and Pro Max’s and they are overtly dramatically political. Lets be serious they had nothing to do with the food.

    The reviews are still up. You can click on the reviews, filter for best or worst rated and you will quickly see reviews that are tremendously political…and not related to the quality of the restaurant.

    Another interesting point. Look at Big Earl’s Facebook Page. He put it up on June 1 this year. So one thing Big Earl’s did was react to the controversy by creating that page. It has generated a lot of controversial activity on its own, with political views coming from both sides.

    This issue has so many different shades and issues: The politics; the use or “abuse” of review sites. Still one more “forum” for snarky web commentators to attack one another, a feature of modern web world and web media. That topic alone has created a lot of controversy, reactions, and attacks. Its all endlessly political.

    Meanwhile each of the review entities will have to deal with the consequences and the volumes of reviews on their pages. They’ll each take a “stance”. They could revise their stance over time. Who knows. We’ll see.

    To be transparent, one other person and I engaged in politicizing reviews several years ago. It didn’t get publicity. It was limited to two of us.

    The reviews went on google + pages for a chain.

    G + took them down. For TECHNICAL reasons. The reviews had links. (to an article referencing our “issue”.). G + ultimately articulated that they would eliminate reviews with links. Actually even before the 2nd group of reviews were filtered out, a first group were dropped. Those reviews were obviously political AND made by an “all new Google account”. The others lasted for months before the technical filter. They were made by an established Google account, which had a long history and a fair amount of reviews.

    For me, having seen this, and been a little bit involved in it, and read and followed it….I’d like to see the review sites take down these overtly political reviews.

    Get rid of all of them. Squash them. err on the side of being overly vigilant.

    For whatever occurred via the owner of Max’s and the daughter of the owner of Big Earl’s…nothing was originally done with the intention of being in the middle of a national maelstrom of political controversy.

    That’s just my opinion. I’ll be interested to continue to follow this controversy.

  4. Whoa….and the world turns. Its 12:40 EST and Google just took them down. meanwhile the political reviews on Max’s from 2011 are still up.

    Looks like a Google “hand job” to me as a reaction to the current controversy. I wonder if there will be any follow up official comments.

  5. Mike, timely topic and great insight at how different channels (e.g. Yelp vs. Facebook) treat the phenomenon of review co-optation differently. I called out your post from my blog today as I was documenting the “mob” that took to Facebook reviews this week in an attempt to shut down a restaurant in retaliation for the chef/owner’s obnoxious post about a customers tip! More grist for the mill, perhaps (sorry for the “Upworthy”-style headline–trying it out ;): http://blog.grade.us/social-media-mobs-are-scary-as-hell-you-wont-believe-what-one-did-to-this-business-owner

  6. @Dave
    Good catch on the Google take down.

    I am with you. Review platforms are not the place for political commentary. I too think the sites should take them down when they occur. Kudos to Yelp and now Google.

  7. Thinking about this as a user of local reviews, it is relevant to know both first-hand accounts and recent news/media items that may disclose more about the business. I agree that commentary from users who have not made a first-person visit to a business should not be lumped in and dilute the value/impact of actual reviews.

    I would recommend implementing some sort of “in the news” feature on the local business’s profile with an authoritative link to a relatively objective source. In the example cited above, we could consider the news report by KLTV to potentially be such a source. With something like that in place, the review sites would be well within their original mission to provide quality, first-hand reviews from customers, while not hiding what may be a very relevant issue for the community.

  8. While I agree that reviews aren’t the forum for political exchanges, I can see how a topic like LGBT discrimination is relevant for folks looking for a place to eat.
    As a member of the LGBT community, I might think Big Earl’s food is great, but I’d be loath to send any of my compatriots to an establishment that treats us in such a manner.
    That said, my review wouldn’t be needed since this is all over the news anyway!

  9. @Jon
    Your case is an interesting story. Hardly seems worth getting anyone’s underwear in a bundle about but it sure seems to have set off a pitched response. Many small business owners are less than pleasant human beings… almost the nature of the beast as it were… trying to meet paryroll, pay taxes, deal with bankers while struggling to generate enough income to keep their head above water they tend to be prickly sorts. It takes its toll.

    I found his comment, while porky, not worthy of response. Interesting that the crowd thought otherwise. I guess I am not a good judge of that. :)

  10. @Ryan
    I think from a user point of view your idea is an excellent one…. the problem I see with Google is that they might view these sorts of reports as a ranking signal instead of an information point.

  11. @Debra
    I totally agree that discrimination in all its forms is a relevant criteria. That being said, I suspect that the folks in Pittsburg, TX rarely read reviews of their local restaurants and already understand (at least implicitly their biases ) :) .

    And in this case at least, I think the conversation in reviews, particularly those at Facebook tend to help a jerk like this more than they hurt.

  12. @Mike, ha! Very well put. Apparently I am no judge either, as I think your assessment of “porky [but] not worthy of response” is most apt ;) A business owner’s misguided online comments are hardly worthy of a mob takedown of the business in reviews by people who have never been there IMHO. But am I speaking reason to the “mob” or is the “wisdom of the crowd” the ultimate in reason now? In any case, the mob/crowd is more powerful than I am, so perhaps it’s a moot point.

  13. I agree with Yelp (never thought I’d be saying that) ” reviews should be focused on everyday customer experiences with a business”

    No ‘reviews’ like “I bought my house from these guys and they left a bunch of stuff in the basement, so I think their restaurant would be crappy too”

  14. I agree with Andy and Yelp that reviews should be about everyday customer experiences with the business.

    What I would be worried about with reviews being concerned with politics is that business owners might also receive negative reviews for supporting a certain political party, belonging to a religion, or even if they liked the wrong sports team. Business owners, then, could be the victim’s of discrimination based on non-business issues. Reviews should be about customer service and experience.

    Right now I’m a little jaundiced about reviews as a whole since I received a couple of negative reviews from competitors that took hours of my time to remove. One was Yelp, one Google plus. They’re gone but it was time consuming to remove them.

    I wish I could opt out of reviews.

  15. Mike:

    I’m curious to follow this. As the days pass it appears that yelp continues to rigorously apply standards that eliminate all politically inspired reviews. Google appears to be more lax. I see about 10 current reviews, most of them having been put up recently and since the news blast hit. Current reviews are definitely “political”.

    I’d say other review sites haven’t bothered to “manage reviews” and separate the actual from the political.

    Meanwhile Facebook has taken down the page that the owner’s established. FB is a different animal. The admin’s on a page can “manage reviews” possibly getting them taken down, on their own. As an admin we can work through reviews and “report them to FB”.

    In light of that FB, FB simply took down the business page. Meanwhile there is a separate “protest page” abt “big earl’s”

    While I would rather see review pages that aren’t politicized its a many sided issue with many different concerns.

    At least as of several days following the brouhaha it appears that Yelp is more aggressively and persistently “managing and deleting political reviews” than is google.

    Of course its a moving target. As far as we know, google could have somebody take a look at more recent reviews and “nuke” the latest batch, should it so desire….and continue to do so on what appears to be a less vigilant basis than yelp or it could “manage the page” more vigorously.

  16. Mike: I find the Big Earl’s phenomena continuously interesting from a number of perspectives in so far as it temporarily shined a light on reviews:

    1. I think its interesting to look at the total volumes of reviews. Yelp garnered significantly more than any other web source. You editorialized with regard to the demographics that attract yelpers versus other sources…but still its volume of reviews was significantly greater than any other source. To me that is somewhat telling in a manner that goes beyond demographics. There are other elements to that story…to be determined over time.

    2. Facebook generated a lot of reviews. A lot more than Google. That is interesting. The community of local writers hasn’t spent time writing about FB reviews….but cripes…they are there and potentially there in large numbers. We just don’t focus on it. Yet it has a size and a potential that is enormous.

    3. Something interesting about FB reviews: One can’t filter them in ways that one filters other types of reviews.

    Suppose I wanted to overview and look at the worst reviews and then the best reviews, ie filtering by most or least “stars”. I can do that in google and yelp. I can’t do that in FB.

    On the other hand, I can read a summary of 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 star reviews in either FB or Yelp. I can’t do that in Google. I can filter in google by best and worst..but I can’t ascertain the volumes per ‘star” as with the other two sources.

    Is this of use? The other day friends and I were evaluating new restaurants. The different places had a lot of reviews. They also had “average” ratings. We took a look at a Yelp summary that showed the restaurants with 3 or more times the 4 & 5 star reviews versus the number of 1&2 star reviews.

    That gave us a more granular assessment from reviews in total. A nice touch. I can’t find it in Google…..yet.

    4. Following Google, FB, and Yelp other sources of review totals for Big Earls were minimal. Right now I’d say there are 3 “winners” when it comes to aggregating reviews….and the rest are “losing”.

    Clearly though there are specialty sources that garner a lot of reviews for different categories….so its not that crystal clear when it comes to all reviews…especially as it relates to specific industries.

    5. FB, Google and Yelp have each reacted slightly differently to the “politics”, and possible publicity with regard to this issue.

    A. Yelp made a statement, stands by that, and seems to rigorously remove political reviews.

    B. Google didn’t make a statement, but also removed reviews. Google isn’t monitoring or removing reviews as actively as Yelp.

    C. FB removed the page that the business had put up. That page only went up after the controversy. It also gathered a “higher percentage” of favorable reviews than did FB or Google…but still had an overwhelming volume of negative reviews. Meanwhile there is a new page on FB still up and mocking attacking Big Earl’s. It was obviously set up by opponents. In a certain context FB has limited the ability of the ownership of Big Earl’s a voice on FB. Interesting.

    Finally for you, Mike here is a little anecdotal piece of info…relative to reviews and the effort of at least one smb to manage and secure reviews:

    One of our smb’s sent out a follow up email to customers asking for reviews. We gave links to several review sites on the web.

    One of our customers ignored all those links…and wrote a review on FB. One of the links to a review site enables sign in via an FB account. We don’t know if the customer has a gmail acct or not.

    For at least one customer FB was the more natural way to go.

    FB may not be the greatest source of focus for smb’s and the writings of the Local Community…but cripes its very large, and its penetration and usage is very significant.

    I think we are missing the ball here, somewhat.

  17. @Dave
    I was just getting ready to publish some research showing Facebook’s huge mind share in the review world.

    What is interesting/unique about Facebook reviews is that are not so much a conversion tool like on Google and Yelp but a branding tool. I think users don’t ever go to the Business page in Facebook but users will see their friends reviews in their stream. A powerful way to increase engagement.

  18. Here is another interesting aspect:

    A business chooses whether or not to have the review app on its FB page. That is interesting.

    I have to acknowledge I didn’t realize that. As an smb operator we automatically put them up years ago. Of course we knew we had businesses that worked tremendously hard to create customer satisfaction. I’ve literally forgotten about it.

    I was reading through FB reviews, and noted a review that was positive about one business for ongoing customer service. The reviewer had used a service at a different business and wasn’t happy with it. The original smb doesn’t have a review app on its FB page.

    OIIIIII!!!! think about all those scammy smb’s that give out poor service. That is one way to “control” your image from getting out of hand.

    Per your comments above, its not only that few people actually get to an FB business page, but per a number of reports and FB’s own acknowledgement….traffic to FB business pages is way way way down.

    Mike: I’m not sure that users see your reviews. In all honesty I don’t “study FB” very hard. I just scanned my timeline and couldn’t find reviews on 3rd party smbs. I just wrote one for an smb….and didn’t see it published on my timeline.

    Am I missing something???

    I’m looking forward to your comments.

    Some of our smb’s have worked for years on FB and twitter with various experiments and efforts. We’ve studied some “winning examples” and tried to tailor them to our particular smb’s. Honestly none have worked for the smb’s as does “search” and some other sources of business.

    We’re still trying though. As you noted…the mindshare is huge. We’re trying to figure out how to tap into it more effectively!!!!!

  19. @Dave, much like with Google+, Facebook’s rules and conventions with respect to reviews have been a moving target since their inception. But AFAIK, currently Fb pages representing business entities with a physical location *will* have the native reviews app whether they like it or not.

    There are “hacks” to remove it, such as re-categorizing the page as non-business or removing its location. Or, as I believe the restaurant I wrote about this week must’ve done, one can contact Fb operations in extreme circumstances to have the app tab removed. Of course, the reviews still remain “out there”: e.g. https://www.facebook.com/OneBlockWest/reviews

    As for the visibility of the reviews you write in others’ News Feeds, I believe it is algorithmically determined as is the visibility of all Fb posts, shares, etc. And I’d speculate further that this only amplifies the sensational, political and incendiary slant of Fb reviews as a corpus. My sober description of the garlic mashed potatoes, after all, will never net the number of likes, clicks and comments (i.e. engagement) that a proper skewering of the chef’s personality or politics will. So which is going to get more play in News Feeds and go viral?

    @Mike, I look forward to seeing that data!

  20. @Dave, Re: reviewers choosing Facebook itself over the Fb login on a third party: We are seeing the same phenomenon across hundreds of “review funnel” pages that present customers with both options, at both the click and conversion level. Meaning: Customers not only choose Facebook more often, it actually *is* the path of least resistance (for many) to completing a review, perhaps due to its design, etc. but my guess is that Facebook users are increasingly leery of sharing their data beyond Fb and drop off when presented with the “Do you want to give access to X?” dialog.

  21. (Reposting b/c something triggered moderation–hope it doesn’t publish twice!)
    @Dave, Re: reviewers choosing Facebook itself over the Fb login on a third party: We are seeing the same phenomenon across hundreds of “review funnel” pages that present customers with both options, at both the click and conversion level. Meaning: Customers not only choose Facebook more often, it actually *is* the path of least resistance (for many) to completing a review, perhaps due to its design, etc. but my guess is that Facebook users are increasingly leery of sharing their data beyond Fb and drop off when presented with the “Do you want to give access to X?” dialog.

  22. @Jon: Thanks for your comments and insights.

    The point that grabbed my attention from the above article was that in total the volume of FB reviews was almost twice that of Google. That surprised me.

    Big Earl’s set up the FB page right after the incident occurred. Just guess that some element of the positive reviews on the now vanished Big Earl’s page were created by FB friends of the Big Earl’s staff. Discount for those…and there are still a lot of reviews on FB relative to Google. So that surprised me.

    We run our own smbs. We really haven’t paid attention to them. Very surprisingly the FB pages have accumulated a lot of reviews w/out any effort on our behalf. Really a lot–relative to other sources.

    Just reviewing this today, it appears that FB reviews don’t go into your own timeline, as Likes do. Your friends don’t see your FB reviews of business pages.

    Whoa!!! That appears to be a big hole and a big opportunity. I’m going to explore this more.

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