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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Reading between the lines of Yelp Reviews - I'm a data geek.

Reviews are not always what they appear, especially on Yelp.  This post won't get into the nitty gritty about filtering, shill reviews, and other shenanigans, but this post will give a different view of how you can read between the reviews on Yelp.

*Note: This data generally applies to Austin-area restaurants (trailer or brick and mortar).  This does not apply to other types of businesses or mail order food products.  I have not looked at the data concerning those types of businesses. I have not looked at data in other cities. If you have a restaurant, don't fret if your review behavior doesn't line up with what generally happens.  Your restaurant might just be an outlier.  This will not apply.  

*In less webbie (or techie) locations or places with a smaller population, I find Yelp to be only marginally useful. 

When I use Yelp for search, the first two questions I have are:
  • 1. What is the average star rating?
  • 2. How many ratings? 
In Austin, you would expect a successful places to have a relatively large number (more than 75) of reviews after a year.  If the location has very few reviews after being open for a year or so, my next questions are:
  • 1. Who wrote the reviews?
  • 2. Is there anything that makes this place an outlier (difficult to reach location, odd hours, unavailable to the public, special events only, or otherwise)?
  • 3.When I Google this location, is there anything odd on the web?  Is the owner an axe-murderer?
After making sure that there was nothing that made this place a horrendous outlier, I would think read the actual reviews for the qualitative data.  This is typically a laborious process just to figure out where I should eat. 

After going through this routine of trying to interpret the data, I found that the review behavior is much more telling than the reviews themselves.  Any place can have a high average star rating as it is fairly easy manipulate.  A restaurant can have only four ratings of five stars each, geee...... that restaurant looks perfect doesn't it?  I would beg to differ, the low number of ratings could be because people really dislike the restaurant and avoid it, or it could be that some Yelp users just don't write about negative experiences.  In any case, a low number of reviews after being open for business for a significant amount of time is a red warning flag.

Being the big data geek that I am, I've looked at review behavior for many restaurants over a long period of time.  One thing that stuck out was that successful restaurant consistently garnered reviews, positive and negative.  Not so successful restaurants would stagnate after an initial burst of reviews, garnering maybe one review every month or so.  In my interpretation of that behavior, a restaurant with a four-star average with a consistently growing number of reviews is a much better choice than a restaurant with perhaps a 4.5 star average, only a handful of reviews, and the latest review was two months ago.  Personally, I would rather eat at a restaurant with a lower average rating that had consistent growth in their reviews rather than a restaurant with a high average rating but no new reviews.  That's just my interpretation of the data, and my opinion. 

I will also add that public relations effort does have an impact on the review behavior, but only significantly in the early days of a restaurant's opening.  There will inevitably be a spurt of reviews (positive or negative) when a restaurant first opens, but if the restaurant fails to perform, the reviews stop coming in.  Additionally, if the restaurant participates in branding and publicity efforts, that might cause other spurts of reviews.  However, it doesn't change the review behavior significantly in the long term.

The chart above is something I created to model the review behavior, and it is based off of many Austin restaurants.  I will not list the ones that are unsuccessful, but I'll point out one that is successful.  The Noble Pig is a great example of a successful restaurant that did not engage in a large public relations effort.  They have been open for only about six months, and they are located a 40 minute drive away from downtown; yet they already have 69 reviews to-date with a 4.5 star rating.  Even though the location makes them an outlier, they are consistently garnering reviews.  That's a place I would definitely visit again, and again, and again.  *Disclosure: I met the chef at several events, and I really like his sandwiches. 

This post is just a suggestion that reviews and star ratings should just be taken with a grain of salt.  Looking at review behavior can give you more in-depth look at a restaurant's success. I'm using the word "success" loosely.  You can define it however you like.


  1. Cool post! I love your data geek qualities. :)

  2. I like making graphs. Given enough data and egg whites, I'd probably make graphs and macarons all day long.

  3. I've often found that finding a place to eat with the help of Yelp reviews to be a hit or miss process. I think you are on to something by looking at them this way. Next time I try to pick my dinner spot I'll keep this in mind. Thanks!