For years, Rob Balon didn’t consider himself a food blogger. He had a website, sure, and he used it to write about food, but he was so early to the scene that he didn’t even know what a blog was. “I never considered myself a food blogger until all the other food bloggers showed up,” he told me.
In fact, unlike most of the food bloggers on the scene today, Balon’s entry into food criticism didn’t even start on the web. He was running a market research firm when he got a call from a guy who used to work for him and and then later went to work for an Austin,Texas radio station. “He called and said we’ve got some ratings problems and need your help.” So Balon’s firm ran a listener survey and found that a substantial portion of the audience dined out regularly. “I recommended they do a half hour show,” said Balon. “They were going to call it Food Friday.” They lined up a host for the show but he fell through right before it was supposed to launch. “At the last minute they asked me to jump in since I had a background in talk radio and one in food. It was supposed to be one episode, and I’m still doing it 20 years later.”
That radio show soon led to a TV show, and before long Balon was a local celebrity in Austin. He later launched a website called Dining Out with Rob Balon and began publishing regular content. “I posted a review every week of a restaurant,” he said. “I would write about wine and the things that interested me in the world of food and hospitality. I was very popular and had a lot of traffic.” Much of that traffic came from Google, with his site listed high in search results whenever someone searched for local restaurants they considered patronizing.
But then one day he heard a restaurateur mention something called Yelp. “‘Yelp?’” he remembers exclaiming. “‘What the hell is Yelp?’ And kind of one thing led to another; next I know I’m surrounded by a world of bloggers and Yelpers and Thrillists and Eaters, all of these nationally-driven sites that allowed andybody essentially to be a food critic.
Yelp was founded by former Paypalers Russel Simmons and Jeremy Stoppelman. The story goes that Stoppelman came up with the idea when he got the flu and grew frustrated in his online search for a doctor. But though the site was launched in 2004, it took a few years before it had made its way into most cities. Food bloggers I spoke to for this piece said they only gradually became aware of its presence, but, like Craigslist before it, once it took hold in a city, its impact on local businesses was substantial. A study conducted by two Berkeley economists found that if a restaurant were to improve its Yelp rating by just half a star, it would increase its chances of being full during peak dining hours substantially.
A huge part of Yelp’s power stemmed from its dominance in search results. Google just about any business, and if the Yelp page for it isn’t the first result, it’s definitely in the top three. “I’d look on Google for a restaurant and my review would be in the top three or four results,” Balon said. “But then all of a sudden you looked at Google and everything was Yelp, Yelp, Yelp. The first four mentions were Yelp driven. Which was a little scary, I must admit. It just seemed to come out of nowhere.” It didn’t help that he was stubborn about pushing forward website redesigns so that it conformed with web best practices; when Google pushed through an update that would penalize websites that weren’t mobile friendly, Balon clung to his old design. “We were getting killed,” he said. “We were falling off the first pages, second pages of Google.” His website only recovered after he moved forward with a redesign that made it readable in mobile browsers.
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Balon reached out to me a few months ago with these complaints, and after speaking to him it got me wondering how local food blogs across the nation were dealing with sites like Yelp, platforms that crowdsourced reviews and provided a pretty decent consensus on whether you should patronize a business or not (FiveThirtyEight compiled data showing strong correlation between highly-rated restaurants on Yelp and the stars awarded by Michelin). Were the Yelps and TripAdvisors and Google Places of the world threatening professional food critics’ businesses, or were they catering to completely different audiences?
“When I’m writing I don’t think about Yelp,” said Joshua Lurie, an LA-based food writer who founded the blog Food GPS in 2005. “I don’t actually see Yelp as a competitor. Instagram is more so, just in terms of where people find places to eat.” But as we continued discussing the issue, it became clear that the local blog scene had changed over the years, possibly due to large platforms like Google, Facebook, and Yelp vacuuming up advertising dollars that might have otherwise gone to local publications.
Food GPS used to be part of Foodbuzz, an advertising network that helped food bloggers monetize, but that network dissipated several years ago. Lurie told me that these days he makes most his money writing for other publications, whereas Food GPS serves as kind of a loss leading home base that helps him promote his brand. “As publications have become fewer, and as food writing gets devalued, I’ve needed to diversify,” he told me.
Lurie and others I interviewed also argued, however, that Yelp really does serve a different audience. “Yelp’s audience is everybody,” he said. “My audience is people who are really enthusiastic about food who are looking for specific recommendations. When they’re looking to take a deeper dive into what really makes a food scene special, they’ll look at Food GPS. If they’re just grazing the surface, they might look at Yelp.”
Nancy Rahman, who founded a blog called The Chicago Chic, echoed this point. “The Yelper is not paid to do anything,” she said. “They have some free time and write their opinion. They don’t spend X amount of hours a week to get their passion across. They’re not very detailed in the way they describe the food.” She supports her website with sponsored posts, a personalized form of native advertising that isn’t easily replicated by the big tech platforms. “I always ask [sponsors] what do you want to do, how do you want to approach people?” Often times, she’ll work with the sponsor to host events where followers of her blog can actually see the product up close and even try it out. “That’s something Facebook, Google, and Instagram, they can’t do,” she said.
I asked Balon how platforms like Yelp have changed his own approach to food writing. He told me that it’s forced him to widen the scope of what he covers. “We were pretty much only reviewing upscale restaurants,” he said. “The local sandwich shop, the local taqueria — we didn’t have anything against them, we just didn’t write about them. We wrote about the top 30 restaurants, the French places, the higher end spots. And one thing we realized is that we really needed to broaden our base of coverage. It’s obvious to me that a lot of people who are Yelpers, who write for any user generated website, they have very different ideas about what constitutes a great restaurant.”
Balon launched Pizza Wars, an annual contest to rank the best pizza places in Austin, and he told me he soon plans to launch a barbecue version of the contest as well. He wrote about the “stunning fries” at a bar and grille and has reviewed sandwich delis. He’s also upped his social media game; in addition to seeing competition with Yelp, he’s also being flanked by rising Instagram “influencers” who are several decades his junior.
He reached out to one of these influencers recently and asked to meet with her so he could “pick her brain.” “What I found out is that she’s 27 years old, doesn’t read the newspaper, she doesn’t watch TV, the phone in her hand is her life,” Balon recalled. “And it’s just quite remarkable how this generation has evolved. She’s got 43,000 [Instagram] followers, and I’ve got 1,600. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’ve realized I’m not getting the Millennials, clearly.”
That doesn’t mean Balon has stopped trying. He invested in a new website redesign last January. And, with help from his daughter, he’s grown his social media following substantially. “Who knows what the future holds,” he said. “I’ don’t ever see myself not doing this. It’s just a matter of adapting to the technological transitions. My god, every day it’s just changing so rapidly. Every time you turn around someone has something new going on. And it’s almost impossible to keep up with all of them. And so from that standpoint, it’s been frustrating, especially for, shall I say, a vanguard Baby Boomer like me. That’s a polite way of saying I’m an old fart.”
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