It keeps coming back: the meme about Yelp being a form of “extortion” driving small business owners out of business, “shaking them down” until they advertise, etc.
Some observers — on scant and selective evidence — allege that there is a pattern. That Yelp calls you up to ask you to advertise, and then when you don’t, favorable reviews start going missing. Kind of sounds like a mob protection racket, right? Exploding bakeries burning to the ground, ominous kidnappings of nieces and nephews, ending in them being mostly unharmed…
Evocative image. But no.
No matter that courts have found all lawsuits alleging these things without merit, ruling in Yelp’s favor on a regular basis.
Why do the courts find this? Consider the evidence. In doing so, go through thousands of randomly selected businesses in a variety of cities and click on the filtered reviews and compare them to the ones that remain live. See any patterns? I’m highly doubtful it has anything at all to do with whether a business has chosen to advertise. Too low a percentage of Yelp businesses pay Yelp a cent to make it a credible claim. Many non-advertisers have robust review profiles, and the filtered reviews you do run across do indeed look thin and suspicious.
Websites like Yelp — and their users — are obsessed with learning more and more about how to tell the difference between reviews people should listen to or trust, and reviews that are out-and-out fake. Subjectivity is a given. But there can’t be any incentive for cheating. And weak enforcement would be an incentive for cheating.
But how can you really know what’s real and what isn’t? Online, you could be a dog, right?
Meet Joey S. He’s the real deal. A live human being who happens to like reviewing run of the mill places like coffee roasters, pubs, and (for some reason) a local bike trail. (Great asphalt! But it rained!)
A user profile on a site like Yelp now leaves so many breadcrumbs, it’s pretty tough to fake. First, there are the reviews themselves. Then, how other users responded to them — liked it, thought he was funny, etc. Then there are friending patterns, offering tips and advice, taking local photos, and a (no doubt imperfect, for now) proof that one actually has been to the locale: check-ins.
I also like the chart for “rating distribution.” So there. You can see that for every user and decide for yourself whether all these review sites are just “bash sites” or whether all reviews are glowing so they must be fake. Neither extreme is true. Reviewers are all different. The distribution of ratings is yet another piece of information you can check out if you want.
Of course, we’ve already been through all of this when Amazon book reviews revolutionized that industry. They’re far from perfect. Warts and all, people still like to read the reviews.
No statistic on its own is proof of anything. But in Silicon Valley, search engines like Google and well-funded tech startups like Yelp can leverage Big Data to look for statistical anomalies and to build patterns that show whether a live (and sincere, non-cheating) human is likely to be behind the content.
(Google does that a lot to look for spam in search results. They’ve also used statistical methods to build one of the world’s great email spam filters, and to come up with ingenious means of thwarting click fraud in their ad program. I suppose spammers and click fraudsters would call that extortion, but consumers and legitimate advertisers would have to deal with the fallout if Google took a more lax approach to such matters.)
I certainly can’t agree with all the opinions of the people who are deemed most trustworthy by the Yelp system. And we shouldn’t be looking for just a couple of know-it-alls to tell us what to think, anyway. Remember the old days? The “restaurant reviewers”? We now know that the know-it-alls can’t scale and may not know what you like. So this is crowdsourced, pro-am info. There is a skill to creating it and using it. The best creators are at least real, sincere, and candid.
On the first page of reviews of Mackenzie’s pub in High Park, in Toronto, there are two elite reviewers among the others. And a few who must be seen as pretty active and credible, short of elite status (whatever it is).
The elite reviewers are at either end of the spectrum. One gives the place five stars. The other gave it one star, complaining about some incident where they were asked to order more, or leave. Probably unfair, some kind of diva behavior maybe? Did she threaten them with her elite Yelp status? Who knows. I’ve been to Mackenzie’s. Nothing of the sort seems imaginable. But if you’re going to settle in for a good long watch of the football or hockey game on scarce tables, it’s customary to maybe order a spot of food, and more than just water. I’m just sayin’.
Business owners have a long way to go towards better handling these differences of opinion. If I were them, and I remembered the incident, I probably would want to join Yelp and respond directly to that negative opinion.
In the Big Data approach Yelp is now taking to try to weed out the many fake reviews (both negative and positive) that trickle into the site, there are bound to be a few false positives and negatives. So if you click on “filtered reviews,” you might find a few that should be released into the wild. But the ones that are public are just so much more reliable, Yelp (and by extension, users) doesn’t need the questionable ones.
Yelp even takes formal positions on reputation management issues in its Support Center. On the question of whether you should ask happy customers to write reviews, they’re surprisingly upfront:
“Probably not. It’s a slippery slope between the customer who is so delighted by her experience that she takes it upon herself to write a glowing review and the customer who is “encouraged” to write a favorable review in exchange for a special discount. And let’s be candid: most business owners are only going to solicit reviews from their happy customers, not the unhappy ones. Over time, these self-selected reviews create intrinsic bias in the business listing — a bias that savvy consumers can smell from a mile away. Don’t be surprised, then, if your solicited reviews get filtered by Yelp’s automated review filter.”
Yelp can say this now, because they no longer need to bend over backwards to “seed” the site with any terse, questionable review they can get their hands on. And because they raised so much money, they were actually able to motivate and even compensate Elite reviewers to sweep through neighborhoods to get some legit feedback on the majority of the busier establishments.
Many review sites don’t take that position. They’d be happy to help business owners solicit positive reviews from customers… just as long as they’re real.
Yelp is telling business owners that these uninformative, solicited, one-off reviews aren’t too objective or helpful to the consumer. They’re warning that these reviews might be filtered by an automated system or editorial controls combined with the automated system.
A robust review profile basically looks like this: more Joey S.’s coming into your establishment and reviewing it. People who are well ahead of the semi-anonymous, one-off little blurb writers; yet may fall somewhere short of the grandeur and obsequiousness of the self-appointed Gods of Yelp.
Basically it’s like this: if you take issue with Yelp’s existence, then you take issue with the community. Yelp isn’t biased; its mission is to perfect a system of conversation that avoids bias wherever possible. You can even read the filtered reviews if you want. (It just takes a little effort.)
And if you’re a “local business” but somehow don’t actually have a significant number of Joey S.’s coming into your establishment and reviewing it… in a world where hundreds of millions of people have an opinion, a voice, and a smartphone with a check-in feature and a review app… seriously, do you really exist?
Successful businesses do “exist,” warts and all. Yelp hopefully helps people find them and helps them listen to the 5% of gripes that are truly legitimate and actionable.
Unfortunately there are still many holdouts. Business owners who don’t like to listen. Business owners who don’t “exist,” currently. Who think it’s all a scam, so why not cheat, even sue, when things don’t go their way?
I hope, for their sake, they put aside their egos and realize that the Yelps of the world are here to stay. And insofar as they represent the legitimate consumer community — all of us, in other words — they’re much bigger than you. And so far, that position’s been sanctioned by judges weighing the evidence in a court of law.
The information is pretty much all out there. You can weigh it yourself.