Before Yelp

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When looking for a new restaurant to try, the internet provides us a simple way to know which places are generally good and which places are perhaps less so. There is scarcely a business that can escape the ratings of Yelp. Be it for a haircut, brunch, a tattoo, or a dog wash, there is no shortage of opinions for those in search of them. Opening Yelp allows customers to browse every provider of whatever service they are in search for in their vicinity, and access thousands of reviews from the people who utilized the businesses before. Not only does this help consumers feel more secure in the quality of the service they will receive, but also may give them specific recommendations from any one place. When it comes to dining in particular, Yelp represents trust in the quality of meals and service that will be provided to the patron for their money. It represents security in the form of knowledge, as it enables users to know what to expect from any one place. People’s trust in Yelp’s ratings lie in its aggregate nature. One might be disinclined to blindly listen to the opinion of any one of these random online raters, but the summative rating generated by hundreds of individual reviews is certainly owed some credence. Even just a few dozen ratings gives a patron more faith in the quality of the business. So how did everyone decide where to eat before Yelp’s almighty crowdsourcing?

Pre-internet people assuredly sought the opinion of their friends or family on dining options, as we still do today, but these reviews assemble a limited database, likely without far reaching jurisdiction. Without the numbers, they found themselves turning to the experts. Newspapers— already holding some variety of authority and necessitated trust (warranted or not)— have included restaurant reviews for decades. Reviewers wrote flowery accounts of their experiences at restaurants. They detailed about things like ambiance, food, and service quality— offering essentially the same content as a pretentious Yelp reviewer. Perhaps people looking for a night out in the city would skim through this particular portion of the paper in order to glean an idea of the most suitable place to go. The trust people already had in the newspaper allowed these reviews to represent the same offer of trust as Yelp does today, as well as knowledge of what the experience will be like through the review itself. 

When people gained more mobility through transportation developments, a whole world of dining out was unlocked. It seems they didn’t know it at first however, as the Michelen tire company released a restaurant guide in hopes of driving up car use, trying to encourage people to venture out and explore new dining options.  Their dining guide offered systematic ratings on restaurants, potentially resulting in up to three coveted Michelen stars. People in search of a very top notch dining experience could peruse the Michelin guide and be assured that their selection would not disappoint. Michelin’s incredibly specific approach to rating restaurants and rigorous training for reviewers represented to those in search of a good meal prior to Yelp the same trust and security the crowd sourcing method does today.

Perhaps people found themselves visiting a new city with no access to a newspaper or guidebook. At many hotels, there was still an expert on hand to turn to regarding restaurant selection— the concierge. This individual’s whole job was to offer guests information on local to-do’s and assist with planning things, such as dining. A local who functions as an expert on what a place has to offer undoubtedly represented to guests the security of Yelp reviews. 

Newspaper reviews, guidebooks, and concierges all do indeed exist today— but for smartphone users, they likely feel wildly out of date. To most, they no longer seem to represent the trust of obtaining a good experience. Perhaps, with the world at one’s fingers, we are more inclined to believe we are all experts. Adhering to the opinion of the aggregate of other normal folks, rather than that of one special person, is more likely to elicit a strong sense of trust. 

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