For a guy who doesn’t get terribly excited about hamburgers or, for that matter, fast food, how is it that I deliberately went out of my way to find one of the worst fast food hamburgers I have ever eaten? I blame crowdsourcing. More specifically, I blame Yelp.
In many ways user review websites like Yelp and TripAdvisor are brilliant. Their millions of members review far more locations than a professional opinion writer ever could. In fact, it’s hard to find something in the world these days that hasn’t been assigned a specific number of stars. And unlike the magazine or guidebook reviews of old, these never go stale because they’re updated continuously.
They’re also supposed to be better. Instead of turning to a crusty old food critic, Yelp relies on “the wisdom of crowds” for its rankings. In theory, the collective view of a large population is better than that of a single individual, even a very knowledgeable one. This idea is the basis for everything from the efficiency of capital markets to Wikipedia. A million internet users, after all, can’t be wrong.
Why, then, are they so often wrong?
Garbage In. Garbage Out.
Yelp, in particular, has directed us to more mediocre meals than I care to recall. One particularly awful restaurant garnered “4 Stars” and a review describing it as “the best Mexican food in Livingston, TX.” Sadly, it might have been. But that’s part of the problem with such reviews. Judging something to be the best in Livingston is not the same thing as judging it to be the best anywhere or, for that matter, even judging it to be good. The best turd pie is still a pretty terrible meal.
For a long time I thought our problems with Yelp stemmed from this phenomenon; that its members use too narrow a sample set in their rankings. Whereas a professional food critic would judge a Mexican restaurant against the broad category called “All Mexican Food,” the typical Yelper seems to judge a place mostly against other local establishments. If all the local restaurants are bad, a good food critic will tell you to skip them all. Yelp, meanwhile, might rate most of them average and a couple of them good or even great.
Our personal experience partly bears that out. Where we tend to have the most luck with Yelp is in large cities that feature plenty of local dining options. The more robust a city’s food competition is, the more likely its residents will have experimented with different restaurants. Big cities also have larger transient populations who bring regional and international food experience to the equation. A better informed crowd must result in better crowdsourced ratings. And so it seems.
Of course none of this explains how I ended up with that regretful burger. That story doesn’t begin with Yelp or even a bad burger, but with a recommendation from a friend – still the best kind.
On a recent trip to New York City, this friend directed me to a relatively new burger joint called Shake Shack. There I enjoyed what is probably the best burger I didn’t have to cook myself. The “SmokeShack” is a cheeseburger, with applewood smoked bacon, chopped cherry peppers and, of course, a secret burger sauce. It was spicy, smoky, savory, greasy goodness on a bun. Everything a fast food experience should be.
Afterwards I made the mistake of consulting Yelp to see what other people were saying about Shake Shack. There I discovered a surprisingly heated East Coast / West Coast burger rivalry. Who knew?
“Shake Shack sux balz, ya’all! In-N-Out Burger’s da BOMB!” according to one reviewer (or something like that, I paraphrase). More serious and common were sentiments similar to those expressed by Seth V.
There really is just no comparison in my mind. In N Out’s burgers are fresher, tastier, and cheaper. New York wins in terms of pizza and bagels, but they can’t touch LA’s burgers. It’s just a fact.”
Salad on a Bun Does not a Great Burger Make
A fact I decided to experience for myself. After completing my quick trip to New York I found myself back in California searching for this West Coast burger Mecca. I didn’t have to look far because they’re basically everywhere. What I got for my effort was a wafer thin patty of beef, a large wedge of iceberg lettuce, and quarter-inch slab of grilled onion, all packed on a roll.
Thinking back I now understand the incredulous tone the cashier used when asking me if I really wanted my burger with onion. It was by far the dominant flavor. Unfortunately, removing the onion only marginally improved things. Mostly lettuce and bun remained. What was supposed to be a great burger experience tasted an awful lot like salad, and a bad one at that.
It’s something I’m at a loss to explain. How could hundreds of reviewers steer us so wrong? It’s possible we just hit In-N-Out Burger on a bad night. But if you can’t count on consistency in fast food, what hope is there for mankind? No, the reason lies elsewhere.
I’m left to wonder whether our individual tastes are just at odds with those of the crowd. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time we and the pack parted ways. These differences of opinion may actually explain a lot. After all, we have a similar, yet completely opposite, problem with hotel ranking sites like TripAdvisor and Hotels.com. Here the difficulty isn’t that people narrowly judge hotels against others in the neighborhood, but that they seem to narrowly judge them against some ridiculous standard; perhaps their bedroom at home. In comparison, all but the most expensive hotels are deemed disasters.
One Person’s Crack Den . . .
Concerning our New York City hotel, one TripAdvisor reviewer warned us to
avoid this crack den. This hotel is a disgrace!!! On arrival we were sent to our room and to be honest i would not have sent my dog there to sleep . . .”
Apparently we have lower standards than his dog because we spent three comfortable and uneventful nights there. Alas, we found no crack.
But then our standards aren’t those of most folks. For our hotels we really only ever want a safe, comfortable bed in a location convenient to where we want to go. We have no need, and would not choose to pay extra, for marble lobbies, extra large rooms, daily maid service, mints on our pillows, or anything else, really. We’ve never once traveled anywhere to enjoy the hotel room. Many reviewers apparently feel otherwise and rate rooms accordingly.
Those differences in preferences and expectations make navigating rating aggregation sites an exercise in advanced psychology. How else can we hope to understand what it means for the same establishment to receive a “5 Star” rating from one user and only “1 Star” from someone else other than by delving deep into each reviewer’s psyche? What is it, for example, that leads a person to describe a place as a crack den? Is the lobby really filled with drug addled addicts or is the reviewer just a bombastic blow hard? And how do we decipher the fairly common all-cap admonishment “ABSOLUTELY DO NOT STAY HERE!!!!” Should we take the emphasis seriously or assume the reviewer is posting on TripAdvisor while taking a break from his manifesto writing?
It’s hard to know in advance which warnings or accolades to take seriously. According to the wisdom of crowds theory we shouldn’t have to care. With enough reviews all of the lunatics balance each other out, resulting in an accurate assessment of a place. Of course that still leaves the mystery of the bad burger, not to mention all the other bad meals, unexplained. Maybe, for us at least, there is no wisdom to be found in crowds; only a kind of madness that defies explanation.