Yelp Extortion: True or False?
We’ve heard it all before: a shady review site features negative reviews of your company, but (glory be!) they’ll remove them—for a price. It’s more of the same old song this week, but in a different
key review site: Yelp. But they’re not taking the allegations lying down.
In a lengthy article generated from a series of interviews with local business owners (all with 3+ star reviews on Yelp), the (Emeryville, CA) East Bay Express levels some serious allegations against the local review site—offering to push negative reviews down on the page for a few hundred dollars, offering to remove negative reviews completely, moving up negative reviews for businesses that declined to use their local advertising.
The Express also outlines a Yelp sales pitch forwarded to them from a local business owner, though I think they generated the list to make the advertising package sound . . . well, bad. Local advertising on the site allows business owners to:
- highlight a favorite review to appear at the top of the page about their business
- show up first in search results for similar businesses in their region (for example “coffee” near “Alameda, CA”).
- display ads local competitors’ profiles, while competitors’ ads do not appear on their page
- post photo slideshows
- add a “personal message” about their business
- update info on special offers and events
- find out how many users visit their web site*
- update their page*
- contact Yelpers who’ve reviewed their business*
- access an account manager who will help “maximize” their experience with Yelp.
The starred items are also available with a free business owners’ account. I find the third feature listed especially confusing—if competitors aren’t Yelp advertisers, why would their ads show up on your page in the first place? And if they are, didn’t they get the same promise, too? (Methinks there’s a couple crossed wires in there.)
Some of these things look bad on their face, but probably aren’t as insidious as they sound. So they get their ads running first in search results—you mean like the sponsored results Google shows above its organic results?
In fact, statements from Yelp’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Ichinose, certainly bring to mind a certain other secret-algorithm-based ranking system:
But aside from a single “sponsored review” at the top of the page, the order of all other reviews is based on a secret Yelp algorithm, spokeswoman Ichinose said. The order is mostly due to recency and reader votes for certain reviews as “useful,” “funny,” or “cool.” But Ichinose said there are other factors, including how frequently reviewers contribute to the web site and “what kind” of review writer they are. “It’s a number of different things we don’t disclose,” she said. “To be explicitly clear, the algorithm is an automated system. There’s no human manipulation of that. … If we were to start doing that, that would erode the trust we have with consumers.”
The EBE article also highlights a weakness of any system that allows for anonymous reviews—gaming. Angry customers (or in one case, refused customers) and rivals can leave scathing reviews that taint a company’s profile and image on the site—and may be costing them customers.
After refuting the accusations directly by showing how clearly marked an advertisers’ favorite review is (and how the neutral and negative reviews still appeared on their page), the Yelp Official Blog questions the credibility of the story’s sources—five anonymous business owners and three named owners, including one business who CEO Jeremy Stoppelman says was trying to game Yelp’s system in their favor.
The Yelp post does, however, point out that the article’s conclusion stops far short of condemning the company:
Interviews with more than a dozen local business owners suggest that Yelp sales reps may be wording their sales pitches more carefully these days. Owners who were approached by Yelp in recent months said they were told they could choose one positive review that would appear at the top of their page, which would clearly be denoted as a “sponsored review.”
And plenty of Yelp advertisers still have negative reviews on their pages. “You pretty much have to fight tooth or nail to get a bad review moved or removed,” said one East Bay restaurant advertiser, who wished to remain anonymous. Peter Snyderman, the owner of Elite Cafe, said his sales rep never mentioned moving negative reviews.
In the final line, the reporter asks a 28-year-old “avid reviewer” if he’d still use Yelp even if reviews were being gamed. His response: “Yeah, I think I would.”
What do you think? Would you use Yelp even if some of the reviews have been manipulated? And how is Yelp doing at defending its business and its reputation?