A study shows why you shouldn't just rely on Google Maps or Yelp for restaurant reviews

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  • Academic analysis of restaurant reviews shows public reviews aren’t the objective truth they claim to be.
  • Reviews submitted on Google for the same restaurant in the same area average 0.7 stars more than on Yelp.
  • “The five-star rating scale is a false simplicity,” said Brent Hecht, one of the authors of the paper.
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Be wary of what you read on Google Maps and Yelp: restaurant reviews aren’t the unvarnished, objective truth they can appear to be.

A new paper by academics at Northwestern University looks at the gulf in ratings for restaurants on Google Maps and Yelp, two popular platforms for restaurant recommendations.

Many users end up turning to Google or Yelp to find suggestions for places to eat, but there are significant differences in how the same outlets are perceived by reviewers on each platform.

“I kept thinking about this a lot: Why do we rely on ratings so much?” said Hanlin Li of Northwestern University.

“Part of it is the one-to-five rating scale is really easy to understand; it’s simply to parse out the information. ‘This is a five-star restaurant, or this is a two-star restaurant,'” she said. “It’s easy and straightforward for us to understand.”

But ratings on Google Maps tend to be 0.7 stars higher on average for the self-same restaurant in the same location.

93% of restaurants Li and her colleagues analyzed had higher ratings on Google Maps than on Yelp, with a quarter of restaurants outrating Yelp on Google by at least one star.

For chain restaurants, the gap is even wider: outlets are rated on average 1.1 stars higher on Google Maps than Yelp. “For independent restaurants, the difference is much smaller,” said Li – “0.6 stars on average.”

Li’s colleague, Brent Hecht, said the paper struggled to unpick why that was the case. “We know for a fact that fast food restaurants are much higher on Google Maps than on Yelp,” he said. “We don’t know as much to why.”

The difference in ratings is important because of the monopoly position each platform holds depending on where you’re searching for recommendations. “On Google, it’s Google Maps ratings that are highlighted,” said Li. “If you search on Apple Maps, it’s often Yelp’s ratings that are highlighted.”

Google Maps reviewers tend to rank chain restaurants better than Yelp’s, perhaps because of perceived better value. Li hypothesizes that Yelp reviewers see their role as more formally reviewing restaurants — potentially looking for more uniqueness.

“Everyone is going to a different restaurant [on Yelp], making sure that information is valuable to people going to the restaurant, whereas Google Maps doesn’t value uniqueness as much,” she said. “Everyone knows chain restaurants, so Yelp reviewers perhaps tend to focus more on and prefer much more independent restaurants.”

“For me, it’s another reminder that the five-star rating scale leaves out a lot of information,” said Hecht.

If you’re looking to find a good eatery, both authors agree on a good way forward. “Check both platforms,” said Li.

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