How to leave a bad online review without being a jerk

Bad reviews hurt business owners. Should customers be more constructive?

Madison Ketcham for The Washington Post (Madison Ketcham/For The Washington Post)

New York City bar owner Michael Reynolds never wanted his business listed on Yelp. Within weeks of opening, the online review site gave the bar a profile anyway, and the reviews came soon after: “Rude bartenders. Mediocre cocktails.”

Reynolds ordered about 100 T-shirts with the review emblazoned across the back and handed them out to regulars in hopes they’d get a laugh.

Since then, the reviews have kept flowing, says Reynolds, who asked to withhold the name of his bar because of fear of retribution from Yelp or its users. Few are helpful, he noted, with negative reviewers reveling in slam-dunk meanness and friendly reviewers forgetting they’re not professional food critics.

“We’d like a Yelp page where business owners can review the customers,” says the 39-year-old, who has run the bar since 2015.

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Customer feedback for businesses has moved online, where you can insult someone’s cocktails without looking them in the eye. The steady drum of often-anonymous complaints from sites like Yelp and Google adds stress during an already difficult time, as the pandemic drags on and many people spend less time in brick-and-mortar businesses.

Then there are the actual reviews, which often reveal more about authors than the establishments they’re critiquing, business owners say. Yelp says 51 percent of reviews on its platform award the business five out of five stars, but some business owners say the effect of occasional cruel reviews outweighs the benefit of good ones. Reviewers pick on individual employees, insulting their appearances or demanding they be fired. Bad reviews are stuffed with everything from foul language to serious accusations of wrongdoing, Reynolds says.

Is the Internet entirely to blame?

Jacob Treviño, a restaurateur in Cincinnati, says no — he’s been on the receiving end of in-person tirades about tacos, among other things. He tries to see every review as an opportunity to better serve guests, but it can be tough to decide where to focus his energy.

“I think the hardest thing about our society right now, in particular with the Internet, is: How do you deal with constant feedback?” Treviño said.

A Yelp spokeswoman said customers have the right to review businesses even if the owners would rather not be listed. She said that the company encourages reviewers to register using their real names and that Yelp’s automated system tries to identify rants or irrelevant details and put those reviews in the “not currently recommended” section linked at the bottom of a business’s page. Google did not immediately respond to request for comment.

So how do you leave online reviews that actually help customers and businesses? Help Desk has compiled expert advice from business owners and reviewers so you can write constructive reviews that stand out from the mean-spirited peanut gallery.

Don’t be fooled by anonymity

Don’t let any supposed anonymity on review sites encourage you to say things you wouldn’t say if your own name was attached.

On Yelp and Tripadvisor, other people can visit your profile and see every review you’ve left. If you wouldn’t want a first date to read it, don’t write it on the Internet.

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Avoid personal attacks

That slow, forgetful server who made your blood boil could have just had the worst day of his or her life. Leave room for people’s humanity when you’re reviewing their behavior on the job.

If you need to mention poor service, stick to the facts. An employee’s appearance is almost never relevant, says Becky Foley, head of trust and safety at Tripadvisor, a travel-planning site that includes reviews. Think hard before using first names (did this employee cause you harm, or just annoy you?) and leave last names out.

“Depending on the entire context, if there is no description that ties that into your actual experience at the property and you’re simply saying something to insult someone, that’s not something we’re going to post,” Foley said.

Keep the details firsthand

If your cousin’s roommate’s girlfriend’s mom heard something bad about an establishment, it doesn’t bear repeating, Foley said. Focus your review on things you experienced yourself.

No reviewing under the influence

Friends don’t let friends write drunk reviews.

“Any reviews left after 2 a.m. and before 6 a.m. should be discounted,” Treviño said.

Similarly, give yourself some time after a bad experience to cool off before you write. Tripadvisor lets authors delete their comments if they experience review-regret, and Foley said its automated system can flag policy violations such as personal attacks before the review goes up. The offending reviewer gets an email explaining how they need to edit the review if they’d like it to appear on the site, so they can rewrite once cooler heads prevail.

Check your expectations

Paying customers have a right to critique their experiences, Foley said, as established by the Consumer Review Fairness Act in 2016, which both Tripadvisor and Yelp supported.

But if you’re mad because a steakhouse didn’t serve falafel, that’s on you. Before you start typing, make sure you consider whether the business delivered what it advertised, Treviño said. Bars are often loud. The department of motor vehicles has long lines. Not every experience will conform perfectly to your tastes.

A sense of humor can help, too, says Maddi Filliater, an accountant in Cleveland who turned to Twitter during her college days to let companies know when things went sideways. Filliater says she tries to keep her feedback lighthearted so companies know the jabs are all in good fun.

“All my hung over a-- wanted was some @shakeshack cheese fries but they forgot the cheese,” she tweeted at the hamburger joint last week. The company responded soon after and ended up offering her a complimentary meal, she said.

Consider your audience

Running a business can be hard, and some establishments have more resources than others to deal with customer complaints.

Back in college, Filliater said she tweeted at a local sandwich shop about some alleged brown lettuce, and the business responded angrily: Why didn’t she bring up the problem in person instead of attacking them on the Internet? Her friends refer to the incident as “LettuceGate.”

“Ever since then, I’ve steered away from smaller businesses,” she said.

Longer is better…to a point

The most frustrating reviews are three stars with no comment; nothing for the business owner to go on to make the experience better in the future, Treviño said. If you’re leaving a negative review, make sure to write enough to let the company know what went wrong. Tripadvisor, for example, has a minimum word count (to avoid the likes of “rude bartenders, mediocre cocktails”). But tread carefully. Nobody wants to read a manifesto — especially from someone who overestimates their own expertise.

“The long ones are sometimes the most daunting things to ever read,” Reynolds said.

Note what was good

A balanced review is a helpful review. Before you launch into what went wrong, note what you liked about your experience, says Foley. That helps the business owner know the feedback is in good faith.

Share feedback in person

Most importantly, practice mentioning problems as they arise, Treviño recommended. Any business owner worth their salt wants to fix things in the moment rather than hearing about it after the fact, he said. If you’re not cursing or shouting, odds are managers and employees will hear you out.

It may feel awkward to voice a complaint face to face. But it’s better than spewing meanness from behind the safety of a screen, business owners say.

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