The last meal I ate inside a restaurant before COVID-19 shut everything down was chicken kebabs at a local Mediterranean place. All three TVs in the dining room were showing Friday the 13th: a woman ran panicked through the woods past bloodied bodies as I dipped grilled chicken in tzatziki sauce. My husband and I didn’t want to watch, but there was nowhere else to look.
It would be another 10 days before Virginia’s governor officially closed dine-in restaurants, but fear was already mounting in our college town. (Were the other tables sitting too close? Were we stupid to come here to eat?) Horror film anxiety fed coronavirus anxiety.
Despite the less-than-ideal experience, I still gave the restaurant five stars on Yelp. In the new “we’re all in this together” vibe of the pandemic, where buying from local businesses feels like a patriotic duty, so does leaving five-star reviews.
Back in February, before COVID-19 occupied all my emotional energy, I’d been fretting about how prodigiously I consume reviews and how seldom I leave them. Like the nearly 90% of us who say that online reviews influence our shopping behavior, I’d become weirdly reliant on the input of strangers to inform most of my life decisions. Should I eat the al pastor at this new taco joint? Buy this laptop bag? Read this book?
Yet I rarely gave back to a system that had pointed me toward the restaurant outside Savannah whose banana pudding I still contemplate in quiet moments. While two-thirds of us regularly read reviews, only about one in 10 regularly writes them. Guilty about being an online review freeloader, I resolved to make a change.
But when the coronavirus crisis exploded, local restaurants that I’d eaten at dozens of times began scrambling for some sort of toehold in this chaotic new environment. Was it ridiculous to think that leaving some good online reviews right now would make any difference whatsoever for American small businesses reeling from COVID-19 closures? Maybe. But along with dramatically increasing takeout orders for my family, leaving some good online reviews seems like the best way to let them know that someone is rooting for them.
Pandemic or no, reviews posted on Yelp, Google Maps, and TripAdvisor have real power—both for good and ill. Surveys have found that consumers spend 31% more at businesses that have stellar online reviews, with each one-star increase adding 5% to 9% to a business’s revenue.
Meanwhile, even a single bad online review deters up to 22% of potential customers. Three bad reviews and the number jumps to 59%. Because most of us post online reviews only occasionally, it ends up being the digital equivalent of low voter turnout, where the few who show up wield an outsize impact. As in politics, extremists tend to fill the vacuum.
One-star Yelp reviews for restaurants in my town read like a manifesto from someone who’s only a week into their anger management course. One star for the fancy ice cream shop: “Don’t bother unless you like getting ripped off!” One star for the local barbecue joint: “Who in the world would put sauce on a SMOKED BEEF BRISKET… ” One star for the Chinese dumpling shop: “Thought it was real Chinese sit down style with a waiter. Not a fastfood [sic] joint, where you had to order at the counter, then pickup [sic] at the other end!!!”
I understand the revenge-porn pleasure to be had in leaving a really bad review online for a business you feel has shafted you. But what we don’t like to acknowledge is our responsibility as consumers toward the local businesses in our midst. They’re not all great—some are probably operated by crooks—but most small business owners are humans. The vast majority pour blood, sweat, tears, and money into building companies that genuinely contribute to their communities.
It feels like a gut punch to know that, according to a study by Main Street America, a National Trust for Historic Preservation program that revives historic downtowns, 7.5 million downtown small businesses may have to permanently shut their doors sometime in the next five months due to the pandemic. Some 3.5 million businesses might not last till June. With them, 35 million American jobs are on the line.
I would really hesitate to not give five stars, no matter what you write, because those stars mean so much to a restaurant.”
These losses won’t occur in a vacuum, and neither do our online reviews for these businesses. Even two- and three-star reviews can be devastating for a small business, and four-star reviews are okay, but not great. Because online reviews are mostly anonymous—with only a first name, last initial, and location—platforms like Yelp have enabled a sometimes-brutal indifference to the financial and psychic consequences of a less-than-five-star rating.
“It’s really important to be cognizant of the consequences,” says Hanna Raskin, the food editor at the Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston, South Carolina, and the author of Yelp Help: How to Write Great Online Restaurant Reviews. “I would really hesitate to not give five stars, no matter what you write, because those stars mean so much to a restaurant.”
While it’s long been important to rate businesses highly—Raskin says that leaving a one-star review is basically saying, “I want this small business to close”—it’s part of being a good Samaritan right now. So I began leaving five-star reviews specifically tailored to the coronavirus at the restaurants my family ordered from. On Yelp, I wrote that the dumpling place (the one that got dinged for not being a sit-down Chinese restaurant) was being extra careful about leaving bags at a table inside the door for contactless pickup, and that the ice cream shop’s new takeout sundae bar perked up our family’s Friday night in quarantine.
But should reviews be motivated by altruism more than honesty? Am I misleading people who might be relying on my reviews to know where to spend money that’s in short supply right now?
For Purdue University grad student Emily Rafalik, reviewing businesses is a service to poor students like her who need careful direction on how to spend the little money they have. But even Rafalik, who has written enough high-quality reviews to earn the “Yelp Elite” designation on her profile, is pretty staunch about leaving only four or five stars. The impact otherwise is just too harsh, she says.
I believe everyone is in need of a few kind words these days.”
As a way to stay honest, I consciously decided not to review businesses that I didn’t think I could reasonably give five stars. The bakery with the dry muffins and the mechanic that botched a repair job twice in a row? I skipped them. For other businesses, I offered grace notes. When a favorite restaurant gave us regular fries with our steak shawarma instead of the sweet potato fries we paid extra for, I was honest about it in the review, but added, “Their food still gets five stars.”
Even as I up my family’s takeout quotient to send more cash into locally owned businesses, the five-star reviews I’m leaving may be most meaningful to the suffering restaurant community. Three restaurant owners responded gratefully on Yelp after I posted. “Thank you for your kind words,” one wrote. “I believe everyone is in need of a few kind words these days and we greatly appreciate them coming from our customers.”
I probably won’t turn into one of those people who reviews absolutely everything, but even after the COVID-19 crisis ends, I plan to wield the power of the give-star review for good. A few kind words can make a huge difference to a small business.