Three out of 12 Xi’an Famous Foods Yelp pages currently have a pop-up alerting users to the possibility of incentivized reviews. The pop-up, on the 54th Street, 34th Street, and Saint Mark’s Place pages, warns, “We caught someone offering up cash, discounts, gift certificates or other incentives in exchange for reviews about this business,” and links to a photo of the practice.
Owner Jason Wang explains the situation as a misunderstanding. The fast-casual Chinese restaurant chain uses consumer experience management app Tattle, which provides realtime feedback to businesses from customers. If a customer gives Xi’an a good review on Tattle, then Xi’an had been asking that customer if she would then like to transfer that same review to Yelp in exchange for a free $5 coupon. Upon learning this violated Yelp’s policies, Wang discontinued the practice, but the alert will remain on the page for up to 90 days.
“It has never been our policy to offer money for reviews. We disagree with Yelp’s view on this matter as we do not believe the transfer of someone’s honest feedback onto Yelp is coercion [by offering] rewards. The initial Tattle reviews were submitted at the customer’s will initially and as such are honest and fair, not affected by monetary means,” Wang tells Eater.
Despite the explanation, a Yelp spokesperson took a strong stance: “We don’t take this lightly. Companies like Tattle are designed to help businesses keep negative (but honest) feedback off of public forums like Yelp, where it can help inform other consumers' spending decisions.”
Out of the millions of businesses nationwide on Yelp — which do not have a choice to be on or off the platform, once a customer weighs in — there are 120 places that currently have similar consumer alerts on their pages. Yelp began the program in 2012 as a way to prevent “shady practices.”
Tattle tells Eater that “it is not a common practice” for businesses to use the data collected on the app as a way to garner Yelp reviews; rather most companies use the service for operational purposes. The Xi’an survey asks about wait time, staff interaction, location cleanliness, and meal quality, ending with a star rating.
If the rating was five stars, that’s when Xi’an used to reach out asking a customer to transfer those comments to Yelp in exchange for $5. The restaurant still asks that of customers, just without the monetary incentive, in accordance with Yelp’s policies.
“Yelp is trying to prevent untruthful or influenced reviews, and that is certainly understandable, but in our case, because our reviews are actually authentic and provided before any monetary incentives, it is different than paying winers-and-diners for their influence,” Wang says. Customers do still receive a free tea in exchange for a Tattle review.
The 54th Street location is currently closed until at least tomorrow for interior updates. Separately, the original Golden Shopping Mall counter was supposed to shutter permanently due to changes in the building, but Wang says “popular demand” has kept it open, but only serving Liang pi cold-skin noodles and the burgers. All other Xi’an locations are operating as normal.
Canton Lounge in Chinatown also has a similar pop-up, though for “a number of positive reviews for this business originated from the same IP address.”