The Web was supposed to disintermediate business, replacing corruptible middlemen with accurate information fed directly to consumers. But judging from the restaurant industry's experience, it may have just made corruption more widespread and louche. Just look at this receipt:
Now this offer, originally blogged by San Francisco PR man Jared Rivera, doesn't say you have to write a positive review on Yelp. Just any old review, of this restaurant. But if you didn't enjoy your meal, a 20 percent discount on the next one isn't going to motivate you to do anything, including writing a Yelp review. Those who do write up a review will be inclined to add extra star-age, since they'll be presenting the review directly to restaurant staff. It all adds to an easy way for the restaurant — in this case, Mel's, an unremarkable 1950s style diner — to juice their online ratings.
This sort of red-carpet treatment is baked into Yelp's business model; the San Francisco company regularly invites its favored users to "Yelp Elite" events where they are wined and dined at a restaurant's expense. A flood of positive reviews often follows.
Some restaurants have also taken to targeting heavy users of foursquare, an iPhone application that lets you "check-in" to a particular location. Become enough of a regular, and foursquare will crown you "mayor" of that spot. The app is only five months old, but already the owner of Lure and Chinatown Brasserie in downtown New York is buttering up Lure "mayor" Scott Kidder with off-the-menu dishes. "Beyond bullshit" was how Eater.com co-founder Lockhart Steele reacted to this VIP treatment on Twitter. (Disclaimer: Kidder handles my paychecks; Steele used to oversee Gawker.com.)
Of course, restaurants have always kowtowed to opinion shapers. Esquire critic John Mariani is among those known for accepting free meals from restaurants that end up in his magazine; even critics who pay their own way can benefit from lavish chef attention when they do not visit anonymously. But old-school favor trading was at least subtle, visible mainly to media critics and industry insiders — the proverbial making of the sausage was no more in the diner's face than the literal.
Catering to the large and growing corps of Web VIPs is, by necessity, a more explicit affair. This transparency can be unappetizing, especially when it looks desperate, as on the receipt above. But it does send a useful signal to diners about the priorities of the people from whom they buy food and service. And at a time when diners increasingly do want to know how their sausage is made, they might as well also learn something about the manufacture of restaurant buzz. Of both the organic and synthetic sort.
(Top pic: A Yelp Elite event in San Francisco, via Yelp on Flickr)