Word-of-mouth advertising and small businesses

Screenshot of Firefox home page. Many websites like Firefox and Tumblr blocked out contents with black strike-out squares to protest SOPA.

I love trying new restaurants. Sure, sometimes I may be a creature of habit and go to the same diner and get the same sandwich every time, but sometimes I’m more adventurous. Plus, I love food, so what’s not to like about trying something new?

Yelp, a user-driven website, plays a huge role when I want to look for a new place to try or if I’m traveling and want to know what locals favor.

During my last visit to Portland, Maine, I found Fishermen’s Grill by simply entering “best seafood” into the search box, and there it was, on the top with five star rating.

Some reviews I read said:

“Don’t judge a book by its cover. We drove past this divey looking place and when we found it, we debated whether to go in for Friday night dinner — THANK goodness we did!!! We all loved it and Tom (the owner) made it even more fabulous. We read the Yelp comments and they are all true.”

“Thanks yelpers for helping me find my first delicious lobster roll! Driving here like many, I drove right by it because it truly is a hole in the wall. However when we got here this place didn’t disappoint.”

After devouring my giant basket of fried haddock and shrimp, now I feel a little bit obligated to jump on the bandwagon and write a glorious review since all these people found the restaurant the same way I did, by reading what others wrote.

Under the motto “Real people, Real reviews,” Yelp invites people to comment and share their opinions, and this seems to help small businesses thrive.

In fact, when I talked to Tom, the owner, the cook, and the cashier of Fishermen’s Grill, he said when he first took over about a year ago, the place didn’t attract that many people. He lost thousands of dollars in a month. Then something changed.

Through word of mouth and discussions on restaurant review sites — not only Yelp, but also Urbanspoon, Food Network, Travel channel, etc., people slowly started flowing in. Now, he works a 12-hour day every day, but hey, he has a solid group of fans who go out of their way to eat at his tiny restaurant.

As simple as that, small businesses rely on user-generated contents to develop a fan base and attract new visitors.

In fact, I know many Vineyard restaurants utilize Twitter and Facebook as well. To mention a few, I follow @BakehouseMV, @KatamaGeneral, @Beetlebung, @Tisberry and @50slice and often see them tweeting about specials and discounts.

Since Martha’s Vineyard boasts local businesses that focus on local ingredients and local people, unlike big chains like Dunkin’ Donuts or Subway, they need those unique PR approaches to increase the revenue.

Now, government wants to put a stop to all this. No matter how much effort we put in through “Small Business Saturday” or commitments to buy local, the new bill the Congress is debating right now, Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) may ultimately kill small businesses, and I don’t understand why some Congressmen don’t see the devastating implication of the bill.

I personally am still trying to understand this bill fully, but thus far what I got out of reading about it is if anyone suspects anyone of copying someone else’s content, the government has the right to shut down that whole website until that one particular accusation is cleared.

For example, last week I asked our readers on the Times Facebook page, what’s your turkey recipe? A couple people responded, and shared with us simple, easy ways to prepare a turkey.

One comment said, “I like to brine my turkey… There are many brine recipes, but basically water, maple syrup, salt, and various spices.” Another reader said, “I use the simple method: salt, pepper, rosemary baste with a mixture of white wine and chicken broth, stuffed with onions and garlic for extra flavor…”

Hypothetically, if someone accuses these contributors of plagiarism or posting infringing links, under SOPA, the government can tell us to shut down our page until the comments are removed.

According to anarticle in Mashable, the list of sites that could suffer the most from SOPA includes WordPress and Tumblr. And what do we do on those sites? We blog. We post user-generated content. We talk. So taking this concept to what I was talking about earlier, how small businesses need user-generated content to survive, follow my thought process here:

Many people like to blog and often they like to talk about restaurants they’ve tried. So if one person posts on his or her Tumblr blog how much they loved the soup from Restaurant X because of its usage of paprika and a secret ingredient, a random reader could respond that this same post had been circulated somewhere else. Then the government can shut down the blog host — in this case, Tumblr — under SOPA, subsequently preventing everyone else from talking about Restaurant X.

As a result, Restaurant X loses an opportunity to stand out, and in the end its chance for connecting with fans disappears.

Even Small Business Saturday relies on using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to spread the word and offers an app that allows you to see what others are saying about your business. This only proves how valuable user voices are, but the new bill, if passed, weakens these fan-based websites by making them more vulnerable to scrutiny and unfair punishment.

The Mashable infographics said that even LinkedIn and Facebook might see the negative impacts as well. Because of an extremely tiny number of people who don’t respect the Internet law, must we all suffer?

Yoojin Cho is web coordinator at The Martha’s Vineyard Times. Follow her and The Times on Twitter, @theMVTimes and @Yooj812, and “Like” us on Facebook.