Search Engine Optimization: One Reason On-Line Reviews Stink

I wonder how much Penelope has paid Yelp for good reviews?

OK, I don’t know whether that’s happened. I mention Penelope paying for good reviews on Yelp only because Yelp’s been accused of some underhanded business tricks, and a year ago I went so far as to ask whether Yelp might be in the extortion business. But after the experience I had at Penelope NYC this weekend it’s hard for me not to believe Penelope is doing something dirty with her on-line reviews.

In New York City, one of the sports residents undertake regularly is the search for the perfect brunch. This weekend, my girlfriend and I decided to look for a new place to great the day, and Penelope made the short list of finalists. They sounded pretty and cozy (and they were!) and Penelope was well-reviewed on Yelp (four stars out of five over 500 reviews), well thought of at New York Magazine (nine out of ten, albeit for just four reviews), and Penelope had done well at TripAdvisor (four of five on 70 reviews). Penelope even managed that four-of-five rating by over 800 people on Google.

Don’t ever trust star ratings you find on the Internet.

Despite looking farther into the matter by reading a few of the lower ratings for Penelope, like this one, we took a shot. After all, to get that four-of-five rating averaged over so many reviews there have to be a tremendous number of very happy patrons, right?

No way. That many people can’t have taste this bad. The system is rigged. For the record, I’m saying it: stay away from Penelope NYC . The food was tasteless and the service was surly.

Now onto the SEO and Search Engine Optimization issue in reviews.

Whether Penelope arranged them or they were an indication of truth in the idea of Yelp having an extortion-based (or otherwise dirty or rigged) business model, 500 reviews is a lot of reviews. Statistically speaking, to garner an average of four stars out of five you need four five-star ratings for each one-star rating, a few more to counteract each two-star, etc.

Further, while taste is subjective the reality is that both five-star and one-star ratings need to be looked at askance. People who rate something as low as possible often do so because they have some sort of axe to grind, and those who go all the way to the top of a rating scale either do so because they were compelled to fill out a form of some sort and decided to tick off all of the most-positive boxes to save time, or had some other reason to be that nice.

This means that absent rigging almost every business on Yelp, including Penelope and other restaurants, will score either three or three-and-a-half stars out of five. It’s the same idea that keeps most movies rated above six but below eight out of ten on IMDB. When someone is outside the “normal” range it means either that there’s something truly extraordinary (or horrible) about them or that the system was tweaked.

SEO is like that. It tweaks the search engine optimization system. Which could sound as though I’m coming down on the very idea of a service that we sell at Answer Guy Central.

I’m not. Google has clear rules for what’s allowed in Search Engine Optimization, and as long as your SEO consultant follows them, doing SEO is allowed. It’s when your SEO Consultant gets outside the white-hat range of SEO practices and into the black-hat area that Search Engine Optimization becomes a problem.

When you see something on the Internet, understand why you see it. And act accordingly.

Oh . . . and as for Penelope NYC? I think I’ve made my feelings clear. If not, here you go, Miss Penelope: Two Stars.