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Italian Bistro Games the Yelp System, Asks Patrons to Invent One-Star Reviews

Botto Bistro owner Davide Cerretini offering a healthy "Salute!" to Yelp.
Botto Bistro owner Davide Cerretini offering a healthy “Salute!” to Yelp. “I just wanted to make a point that they don’t have power over me.”

Botto Italian Bistro in Richmond, California has developed an ingenious method of gaming the infamous online community review site Yelp. It’s offering a 25% pizza discount to people who write one-star reviews on Botto’s Yelp profile. By Friday afternoon, it had accumulated over 400 hilarious one-star reviews and widespread media attention.

Like wildfire, people have seized the opportunity to creatively satirize the hive-mind culture of Yelp. Many of the reviews are written by people living way outside the Bay area, who have no intention of ever actually going to the restaurant, or taking advantage of the discount. They just wanted to diss Yelp.

“Everybody wants to be part of a project,” owner Davide Cerretini told the International Business Times. “The American public is not stupid. There is a part — a community — that believes Yelp has so much power. I just wanted to make a point that they don’t have power over me.”

Here’s a sample of Botto’s one-star reviews:

“I used to like pizza until I went to Botto’s.”

“Upon entry, me and my wife were greeted by a man wearing nothing but Crocs and a lacrosse jersey.”

“It was my little shih tzu’s birthday and we wanted something special to celebrate. As they refused to let him eat his meal on the table (rude) we did takeout.”

“I came in to pick up my cat’s vaccination papers. They didn’t have them.”

“They have a sign in the bathroom that says “employees must wash their hands before returning to work”. So controlling! It doesn’t sound like a fun environment to work in.”

“I thought about giving this place a try, and then read the negative comments. Forget ever coming to this place! THANK GOODNESS we have a company like Yelp to allow us to find 100% accurate customer reviews!!”

Several reviewers complained, in the course of leaving their one-star reviews, of the absence of reviews by the so-called Yelp Elites. Yelp Elites, as described by Yelp, are “model Yelpers that engage on the site by sending compliments, voting Useful, Funny, and Cool (UFC) on reviews, participating respectfully on Talk, and consistently posting quality content.”

So basically, Yelp Elites are the online equivalent of the type of person who obsessively clips coupons out of free supermarket flyers, with added narcissism.

The battle between Yelp and Botto Bistro has been a long time brewing. Owner Davide Cerretini initially bought into the Yelp hype, purchasing advertising through the site in order to stay on its good side. But things changed quickly and Cerretini grew disillusioned.

He said that three five-star reviews disappeared from Botto’s Yelp profile after he stopped advertising with Yelp, a phenomenon that jibes with the testimony of many other small business owners. Yelp, of course, denies the practice.

Yelp wouldn’t have had a war on its hands if it had agreed to allow Cerretini to remove his business’ profile altogether from their site. But that’s not the way Yelp works. Anyone can post a profile page for any restaurant or small business and start posting reviews. Business owners have no say in the process.

As new economy disruptors like Yelp inevitably become the establishment, the pervasive techno-coercion implicit in the reputation economy will increasingly become less easy to distinguish from a few of the more ridiculous aspects of the old economy, like for example credit rating agencies: lacking in transparency, endlessly powerful, impossible to revise and frequently wrong.

A clue to the Botto campaign’s origin exists on their website’s FAQ page, where you’ll find answers to questions such as, “Q. Have you heard that the customer is always right? A. Yes and we find it hilarious.”

Then the Q&A gets specific about Yelp.

Q. Are not you worry that many bad reviews on yelp can impact your business?

A. The day that we think that reviews on Yelp are the key for our successful business, is the day we should change business.

Botto Bistro’s About Us page is dedicated to celebrating questions posed by customers.

Q. Do you guys have happy hour?

A. No we are happy all day.

But all this media hoopla obscures perhaps a more pertinent and interesting question. Is Botto Italian Bistro any good?

A recent review by Radio Free Richmond speaks of the “craftsmanship and immense creativity” of the chefs before revealing, “The food is as good as the service is mean at Botto Bistro, and it doesn’t look like there are any plans to change the recipe.”

Since launching his one-star campaign, Cerretini has received an email from Yelp warning him that he’s in danger of violating their terms of service, writing, “If you are offering incentives in exchange for reviews, we ask that you immediately discontinue such activity.”

Cerretini finds Yelp’s correspondence hilarious.

“I didn’t break any law. I pay taxes. I live within the law of the United States, not the community of Yelp.”

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