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ALISON STEWART, host:

Here's a sampling of what people have been writing about one famous Brooklyn steakhouse on the online (unintelligible) site, Yelp: Super mob joint that looks like a German beer hall and is so bright, I felt like I was eating lunch. This place is, oh, old-bleeping school.

Here's another one. Wow. Was this place a disappointment? No choice of cuts. Yay, porterhouse. Thrilling.

Here's another. Bring the cash, folks. No credit cards allowed. I think I had to hit the ATM twice because I needed 500 bucks plus.

Now, 15 years ago, Zagat's guide was as close as it got to user-generated restaurant views. In fact, they have a guide coming out this week. So does Michelin. But a lot of people really don't pick those up anymore. They go straight to the Web with the Web sites like Yelp and Chowhound.com and other food blogs. A lot of people like these better because they assume that they're written by average folks, not pro-reviewers, and you might get a real, honest review or an opinionated rant. Maybe so, maybe not.

The Wall Street Journal did a little digging on this subject. So for this edition of a story we wished we'd thought of first, ripped…

(Soundbite of "Law and Order" transition cue)

STEWART: …off from the headlines, reporter Katy McLaughlin from the Journal joins us to discuss her article, "The Price of a Four Star Rating." Good morning, Katy.

Ms. KATY McLAUGHLIN (Writer, The Wall Street Journal): Good morning.

STEWART: So rather than ignore the blogs, a lot of restaurants are increasingly - interact with the people who write about them. Could you give us an example or two?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Well, we found situations where restaurants were reaching out to bloggers - individual bloggers who have their own blogs where they talked about food, their cooking experiments, their visits to restaurants - and inviting those bloggers to please come back to our restaurant, try us again, after they had read something negative about their place online.

One example of this was Le Cirque - a restaurant that is famous for catering to rich and powerful celebrities - read a blog posting by a guy who runs a blog called Amateur Gourmet. He had written a scathing review of a visit to the restaurant. He titled it "Only a Jerk Would Eat at Le Cirque."

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUKE BURBANK, host:

Ooh, that rhymes.

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: He didn't like the way the restaurant had treated him and his parents. He felt that Sirio Maccioni had snubbed his mother when she tried to go up to him and hobnob a little bit. And he felt like he got - they got a really bad seat in Siberia at the back of the restaurant.

So he wrote about it, this terrible review. And other people, people who were reading the blog, just piled on. They wrote in their own horror stories. Or even if they hadn't been to Le Cirque, they wrote in saying they would never go. It sounded like a terrible place. How dare they treat their beloved blogger this way?

Well, Le Cirque found out about it. One of the co-owners - one of the sons of Mr. Maccioni who runs Le Cirque - started to write postings on the blog saying, how could you talk about our restaurant this way? And ultimately, the restaurant wrote a letter to this blogger's parents, inviting them back to the restaurant, and they comped their meal. They gave the family a free meal.

And, of course, one of the hopes there was that this would turn around some of the word of mouth that this blog was generating.

STEWART: One of the interesting examples in your piece is about a restaurant in Chicago called Dine. Now they actually threw this giant party for Yelpers. And now, the reviews, if you go look at them at Yelp from Dine, the ones from the people who got their meals comped and went to this party are really pretty stellar. And then the ones where people who just showed and had dinner - not so much. Now, do blog reviewers have to disclose their comps, or do these people just happened to do it?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: On Yelp - the Yelp policy, when I spoke to the CEO, was that anybody who gets a freebie should disclose. I had actually spoken to another spokesperson for the company who didn't seem aware of that policy. So I think that although it is a policy that they have, it's not - you know, these people who are reviewing, they're not employed by Yelp. They don't work for them. Their postings are not policed by Yelp. So it's a little bit fluid - what they can and cannot do.

STEWART: It's funny you say fluid, because, you know, there's obviously a journalistic code for even - for not even food reviewers. Food reviewers work for magazines and newspapers, and they have to follow certain rules. They visit three and four times. Many times they do so anonymously. Is there any kind of emerging blogger code?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Not that I encountered. I mean, that both of the beauty and perhaps the downfall of the Internet. You know, these are people who are self-publishing. Many of them make no money off of their blogs, or they don't make very much money off of them. They make their own rules. And they make their own promises.

Some of them don't promise that they're anonymous reviewers. They even - they disclose on their - on somewhere on their Web sites that they take comped meals, that they even based their reviews on comped meals. Others don't. There's no code. They can do whatever they want.

But for the consumer who's using these Web sites as a way to get information about restaurants, they may want to become aware of what the different policies are or what the different practices are.

BURBANK: What about the actual restaurants themselves coming in undercover and posting reviews? Because I've noticed that sometimes there'll be a restaurant that has, you know, five or six people that didn't like it. And then there'll be just one review that looks like, did you eat at the same restaurant?

STEWART: It's so true. There's a restaurant in my neighborhood for best brunch that never has anybody in it on one of these sites. Never, I've noticed…

BURBANK: And other people - like other Yelpers calling out the single review that sort of stands out against the other ones as being, you know, nice try, buddy. We all know that you run the place.

STEWART: Does infiltration happen?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: It does. I didn't have any luck getting restaurateurs on the record saying that they do it. But I did have restaurateurs tell me that members of their staff had done it. One restaurant owner said he was so excited when he saw this wonderful Yelp posting that just kind of nailed exactly what his business strategy was, and he later found out that one of his loyal waiters had posted it. The practice has become so common that the Web site Eater actually has a feature called Adventures in Shilling.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: They grabbed - they have readers write in where they feel that they have found a good example of a shill. And then Eater gives it a shill rating. So they rate the probability that this was actually written by somebody in the restaurant trade.

I talked to publicists who told me quite openly they absolutely encourage their clients to post or have their friends and family post because they feel that there's no other way for them to defend themselves. It can even happen the other way. A competitor could rate something really negative, or a disgruntled employee…

STEWART: Sure.

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: …could write something negative. And then the restaurant feels that their only weapon is to get their team to write positive things. So it certainly does go on. And although there are some different Web sites say that they try to police it, it's not that easy to police. The whole point is that anybody can write anything.

STEWART: Now, a couple of food blogs have taken issue with your article - as I'm sure you know - saying that they're not just slackers looking for free meals and writing whatever, that there really is a difference between a food blogger and someone who just pops up a review on Yelp. What do you think about that concept?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Oh, I think there's absolutely just a very wide variety of practices and intentions. I think that some bloggers take free meals because they can't afford to be going out every night. I mean, just imagine the price of…

STEWART: Sure.

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: …for a meal in Manhattan every night, and then trying to make a living as blogger during the day. If they want to be in this game, they have to take the freebies. And even some very established Web sites - the Web site Chow, which is a food magazine. The editor-in-chief who has a very esteemed background in journals and told me, I'd love to be able to turn down all freebies. We just don't have the budget.

But I think there's some very honest intentions behind it. The only problem for consumers is if they don't know what's going on, they might think they're getting a more unbiased or uninfluenced opinion than they really are.

STEWART: Well, now they know. Thanks to you. Katy McLaughlin from The Wall Street Journal. Her article "The Price of a Four-Star Rating" appeared in the Journal over the weekend. We'll link to it on our blog.

Thanks, Katy.

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Thank you so much.

BURBANK: I went to the Trader Joe's in Union Square yesterday, and I'm never eating out again because I spent untold thousands of dollars on food.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: You have like 15,000 almonds.

BURBANK: I will be writing a Yelp review about my own cooking, though. Let me tell you, it'll be shill-tastic.

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