How CityPages’ Ad Department is Gaming Their Restaurant Reviews

CityPages.com has integrated a relatively new feature called LikeMe where, as the name implies, they attempt to create venue recommendations for places to eat, drink, and do things based on what people “LikeMe” do. In theory, it’s a great idea for a restaurant review website or website feature.

However, here are a few things you may want to know about this particular offering from CityPages and Village Voice Media before signing up:

1. The community isn’t much of a community at this point, and without more users it doesn’t seem to be capable of making decent recommendations. That’s based on my assessment of the site’s quality during my short use of it.

2. It claims to have a database of 4,000,000 restaurants nationwide, although the directory feels much less comprehensive based on how the information is organized.

3. The kicker: A HUGE portion of the site’s reviews are written by people working in the advertising department at CityPages.

While the folks who work in ad sales are probably really (MN) nice people, what type of reviews would you expect to get from people who have a financial relationship with the businesses they’re reviewing? Exactly. Not only are constructive, occasionally negative reviews few and far between, the positive reviews seemed hedged since they don’t dare play favorites among their clients. Talk about a no-win situation. Of course, it’s not only no-win for the sales people who’ve been instructed to write the reviews. CityPages’ visitors most likely don’t realize they’re reading reviews from venues being promoted by paper’s the ad department.

For example, LikeMe user, MaggieC2 is marketing coordinator Maggie Curran. She’s written eighteen enlightening reviews to date. Here are a few examples (note: these are her full reviews, not snippets):

Loring Pasta Bar: Very cool outside/inside restaurant. I like that.
Chipotle: I eat chipotle once a week. I always get the barbacoa (spicy beef). Delicious. Chipotle, chipotle, chipotle.
Bulldog: One now open in St. Paul!

“One now open in St. Paul . . . exclamation point?” Is that a review or a promotion? Is the place is Minneapolis so bad that she’s secretly telling us to check out the St. Paul location instead? I’m confused.

Here’s IreneP, CityPages sales manager, Irene Iacovou Peterson in action:

Fine Line: A local favorite for music.
JD Hoyt’s: A great place for a steak.

In 14 reviews, IreneP couldn’t find a single negative thing to say about anywhere in town. Universally positive. Granted, she didn’t write much of anything.

CityPages Sales Operations Manager, EmilyN, Emily Neumann, is wordy by comparison with one-paragraph long “reviews”:

Stellas: STEEELLLLAAAAAAA A Street Car Named Desire..need I say more! I mean…really as if the beer being on Tap doesn’t fulfull your urge to scream this line at every turn, Stella’s permits you to yell it out all night (Much to the dismay of your co-drinkers) but hey…after a few Oyster shots…you’re not going to care…cause everyone will be your STELLLLAAAA
Punch: Punch me drunk..silly and sideways. Gosh darn this is good pizza! Plus…an orange sign..it just makes you happy!
JD Hoyt’s: Smoky, Cajun Cahrcoal Grilled food, with the service and food of a Four Star Restaurant, but a atmosphere that makes you feel like your family. Try their Pork Chops, you’ll never find anything else like them!

We’re the kind of place you look for when you travel to a new city – a friendly , shining, non-corporate place that showcases all that is good about the city that it calls home, the kind of place your cab driver might take you if you ask for the best steak or pork chop in town. Great food, staff, service, wine list and special cocktails. Our award winning entrees are prepared on our custom designed 100% hardwood burning charcoal grill, searing your order to juicy perfection

That ambitious attempt at a second paragraph by EmilyN seems inconsistent with her previous writing. Why did she suddenly start spelling things correctly, without a ton of ellipsis, and switch to first person plural?

Maybe it’s because she ripped that content directly from the About page on JD Hoyt’s website? A quick check of that copy on Google shows:

JD Hoyt's Text Stolen by Emily

Yes, she’s actually plagiarizing her reviews using the website of the place she’s reviewing.

What we have have here is yet another case of Village Voice Media gaming online communities for financial gain. (Yes, this is bigger than just CityPages.) Jonah Spangenthal-Lee summarizes the situation nicely in previous coverage at The Stranger:

The majority of Likeme’s reviews—which appear on 12 VVM websites, next to editorial content about the businesses—are written by ad representatives for VVM. The reviews, which are exclusively positive, focus on businesses that advertise in VVM papers.

Not only are the reviews glowingly positive, poorly written, and sometimes plagiarized, there is no disclosure on the site that they’re coming not from people “LikeMe” but advertising staff. People visiting CityPages.com generally don’t fit that “LikeMe” profile.

Manipulating the Community in Practice

The homepage and the front of the restaurants section of CityPages.com include LikeMe.net widgets like this one where Pizza Luce is listed as one of their, “City Pages Reader Recommendations”:

Pizza Luce Recommendations

Presumably, venues featured here are getting a lot of buzz within the LikeMe.net community on CityPages.com.

Based on what is labeled as “reader recommendations,” people may click through to find out more about, say, Pizza Luce. On CityPages’ Pizza Luce page, you’ll find this widget from LikeMe.net:

Pizza Luce Recommendations

Who are these three enthusiastic reviewers of Pizza Luce? They’re CityPages employees:

– Account Executive Katie Riddle (who likes Pizza Luce’s money)
– Account Executive Betsy Schrag (who likes Pizza Luce’s money)
– Graphic Designer Emily Utne (who likes Pizza Luce’s money)

Three for three on “Reader Recommendations” coming from people “LikeMe” who work for CityPages.

The “People who like Pizza Luce also like” portion of the widget should be changed to say, “People with a financial interest in Pizza Luce’s ad dollars also have a financial interest in the following companies’ ad dollars.”

Other people in the box of six “Readers” who like Pizza Luce include:

– Advertising Director, Jeff Hunsaker (who likes Pizza Luce’s money)
– Marketing Manager Holly Hunt (who likes Pizza Luce’s money)
– Village Voice Media’s Corporate Administrator Heather Dobbins* (who likes Pizza Luce’s money)
– Classifieds coordinator Tracie Garcia (who likes Pizza Luce’s money).

That’s seven out of seven “people LikeMe” who all have a financial interest in making Pizza Luce look good by promoting advertiser’s venues.

CityPages is pissing away the trust of their users by handing over control of their restaurant reviews to their advertising department. It’s a sad state of affairs because the site has historically done a nice job with restaurant reviews.

How to Fix This

1. If they participate, clearly label Village Voice Media and CityPages employees on the site. (But think twice about whether that’s a good idea).

2. How about having the food writers do the writing? They’re good at that sort of thing.

Hopefully, by taking a big step back, providing better disclosure, and doing a clean-up of the current content can turn this feature around from something manipulative to something valuable for CityPages.com’s readers.

25 thoughts on “How CityPages’ Ad Department is Gaming Their Restaurant Reviews”

  1. Ed – notwithstanding the merits of your case, natural question: This piece comes out on the day Heavy Table went live. Are you involved in that operation? Any conflict here requiring disclosure?

  2. Ed, you magnificent bastard, there should be a few lines added in here that eases up on the Betsy S.’s and the MaggieC2’s; it’s not their fault that their employer’s website has content needs that can’t be properly sustained.

  3. Hi David. Disclosure? Kind of an ironic question in light of CP’s lack of disclosure.

    I have conflicts coming out of my ears on just about everything I write. In this case, I’m friends with most of people at Heavy Table, have comp’d some review work for them through my 3rdPartyFeedback.com service, I’ve eaten some of the food that’s pictured on the site, and I’d love to see them succeed.

    However, I don’t believe any of that taints what I wrote here. This town is plenty big enough for quality food related content from many sources.

  4. Ed, it seems the people that work at the City Pages are readers too. Why can’t employees express they like Pizza Luce? Just because they like the place, it doesn’t mean there is a “payoff” happening. If I know injecting drugs with dirty needles gives you a disease, must I inform you I an NOT a doctor? Of course not. I am stating the truth. So if these people are stating truth, it matters not if they work at City Pages. If they are lying, which your blog implies, then they should disclose. But why you writers think everyone lies all the time is beyond me. Take the thing at face value people. They are recommending items from a personal recommondation enginge called LIKE ME. People on MINNESOTA, find out if Pizza Luce is good yourself. That’s the idea here. I will bet conpiracy was never on the menu when these people wrote the items.

  5. Ed, as noted, not addressing argument’s merits. But I do think it’s appropriate to ask about conflict disclosure given the demand for conflict disclosure. (Believe me, I’ve been there). Thanks for the response.

    For the record, MinnPost and Heavy Table are apparently doing some stuff together, so there’s my self-disclosure!

    As to the merits: I agree the especially-self-interested CPers should disclose on-site. Can’t help wondering, though, if this is mostly a start-up issue – you get your peeps to populate something as a scene-setter, but they’ll hopefully be swamped by regular folks soon enough.

    Wouldn’t bet on likeme.net’s staying power, however.

  6. David I was just meantioning my worries about heavy table over on mnspeak I assume there will soon be pressure to monitize the social stream(twitter, facebook, comments) . I think that these lessons will serve nicely as guidelines for them. Btw I was over on yelp during the beginnings and they had freebies to populate reviews…stickers t-shirts and parties. I wouldn’t be suprised to hear that they had seeded reviews to gain traction I think that’s pretty par for the course.

  7. @Employees are readers too…, I’m sure that I’d trust the opinions of the people mentioned in this column if there were to give me their opinions of restaurants one on one, off the record. But, based on the nature of their positions, I have a hard time believing they can be 100% candid in their opinions when they’re written down for the world to see.

    Assuming they’ve miraculously overcome their financial bias, the reviews presented above aren’t exactly informative.

  8. As a former (thank God) VVM employee in a different city, I don’t put it past them at all. I noticed this LikeMe garbage when it first launched and this is the first thing that came to mind. All their papers are considerably down in ad revenue, and the slick heads of VVM have ZERO journalistic integrity.

    Great read, and thank you for posting.

  9. The best, most important, “well-read” blog in Minnesota, of the Oracle Ed Kohler, only has 14 comments? Maybe you should start a like me social networking site to boost your viewership? LOL.

  10. A few years ago I had a restaurant client who wanted to run an ad in CP. He didn’t need to, but felt he should as a thank you for a good review.

    I guess he understood what was going on over there.

    During the course of that ad buy, I made the mistake of telling the CP ad rep not to talk to this guy’s partner, mostly because he was an idiot who knew nothing about marketing. Next thing I knew the idiot had been pressured into taking a much bigger ad than sense for them.

    Really, I don’t know how much longer CP can coast on its old reputation.

  11. @14 comments?, should I be measuring my self-worth based on the comments of a single post? Think about how stupid that would be.

    Before casting somewhat anonymous stones, are you sure that the network of alt-weeklies newspapers you work for fares better?

    Comment #16

  12. That is good stuff, cracked me up reading it and enjoyed the comments. Fun stuff Ed keep it up.

    I don’t think I’m shocked that these turkeys are making up lame reviews. How about applying some of that investigative journalism towards the bailouts

  13. I’m waiting for the inevitable expose that City Pages and Village Voice will do on “The Deets”. Hey, I’ve got an idea, maybe you should ghost write it, post it somewhere else and see if they lift it and represent it as their investigative work without citing the source.

  14. To paraphrase Zoolander, that’s some good “investigatory journalism. You seek to truth at all costs, no matter how many people you leave dead and bloodied along the way”. Haha. Looking forward to a City Pages response; how do they explain this? Way to preserve journalistic integrity.

  15. @Matt – That is a hilariously good idea. Ed, you write the piece and I’ll supply the racy photos of you driving a large SUV. Yes, that’s right folks – I’ve witnessed Ed driving a large SUV and I have (or once had if I can find it) photographic proof! More news at 11.

    Although, it’d be pretty crappy of me to post that photo considering it was taken on the day he helped me paint my dining room ceiling. Now I’m conflicted. Damn you Ed Kohler! The ceiling turned out well, by the way. Great, now I’m just rambling and off-topic. Damn you CityPages and your phony/horked restaurant reviews!

  16. Yeah… I am sure that the Loring Pasta Bar and Bulldog are going to really up their ad spending based on those rave reviews (rolls eyes). Did you ever consider that as a roll out of a new service they showed it to the advertising section and that they let them log in and try it out from a users perspective? You know, so they could sell the service? I roll out pages with test content on them as well – Lorum Ipsum on one of my sites neither makes me a Latin writer, lawyer nor contractee. Those ‘reviews’ aren’t going to earn them a red cent. You even state that the number of users is sparse. Guess what? The signal to noise ratio is high. Also seeing as Maggie42’s page has her picture on it finding out who she is was very difficult I am sure, she sure is trying to dupe people. I figure then you either have an axe to grind, a competing interest , or are a tin foil hat maker in your spare time. It really appears you might have all three going for you. Oh, and full disclosure I don’t read it, don’t work for them or anything even remotely related, and I only got here through an odd link.

  17. Bob, thanks for sharing. Here’s my tin foil hat talking: venues with the most reviews are the ones that get the most exposure on the site. Purely coincidental that they also happen to be the places that the ad team has reviewed in unique ways from mailing it to plagiarism. Lorum Ipsum is enough to create additional ad impressions for businesses.

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