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.