Buying Fake Reviews on Yelp? Not So Fast…

Feb 18, 2013 by ARTICLE ABOUT: Yelp

Any restaurateur on Yelp has felt the smack of a bad review. Whether they had poor service or a bad meal, it’s your responsibility to reach out to them and try to smooth things over with the patron that left the review and use it as an opportunity for growth.

Or you can do like some restaurants and try to buy good reviews.

Starting in October, Yelp has begun cracking down on businesses that buy reviews for their Yelp pages and brandishing them with a consumer alert warning badge for 90 days.

A screenshot of the Consumer Alert image used for business that have bought Yelp reviews.

La Pomme in New York sporting the consumer alert warning badge from Yelp.

The text reads:

We caught someone red-handed trying to buy reviews for this business. We weren’t fooled, but wanted you to know because buying reviews not only hurts consumers, but also honest businesses who play by the rules. Check out the evidence here.

The warning, which is posted over the reviews on the Yelp profile page on a white overlay, also includes a link to the damaging evidence of the company’s attempt for paid reviews. Clicking the “Show me the reviews” button will remove the alert, but it will still display if you refresh the page. The alert shows up on the web-based Yelp profiles, but it is not reflected on the mobile app profiles.

Yelp has a few systems in place to help users weed out bad or faulty reviews, and these are reiterated in their content guidelines and terms of service. Because all of the reviews supplied to Yelp come from users, it can be alluring to try and game the system to heighten the profile of your business with a few glowing reviews.

From Yelp’s VP of Consumer & Mobile Products, Eric Singley:

Beyond alerting consumers to attempts to purchase reviews, the next step will be to let consumers know if a business has had a large number of reviews submitted from the same Internet Protocol (IP) address, which can be a helpful indicator that they lack authenticity. While the review filter already takes this type of information into account, we believe that consumers also have a right to know if this activity is going on.

There are currently just a handful of businesses that Yelp has found under this new investigative process, but they plan on continuing and expanding their investigations in the future to help protect consumers.

Yelp has come under fire before from business owners for extorting businesses to advertise on Yelp in exchange for positive reviews. On top of this, there is Yelp’s Review Filter that helps maintain the integrity of reviews. This video from Yelp helps explain it:

Some business owners feel that this new consumer alert warning is another aggressive tactic from Yelp for advertising that gets in the way of their business. A recent New York Times article talked with Jessica Hernandez of Chicago’s Mirror Mirror Spa Salon, another business which received the consumer alert warning:

Ms. Hernandez said she knew nothing about any efforts to buy a review, but had some harsh words for Yelp. The site had been so aggressive in seeking advertising from her, “if I could physically put a restraining order on them, I would. As God is my witness, they literally would call every 15 minutes. I put a block on my phone.”

She said she doubted the beware notice would have an effect. “People are kind of wary about what they read these days, and hopefully they’re smart enough to know better,” she said.

Yelp might be relying on the public embarrassment of the consumer alert warning to get   businesses to do the right thing when it comes to reviews. From the same article, Myle Ott of Cornell University:

“My intuition is that public shaming would increase the risk and therefore the cost of posting fake reviews, which could reduce the prevalence,” he said. But he also had what he called a “more sinister” thought: “What’s to stop someone from going and soliciting fake positive reviews for a competitor’s restaurant, in order for them to be publicly shamed?”

Ott raises a good point. Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine claims that as much as 30% of online reviews can be fake, so this type of enforcement by Yelp is just one way that they are trying to crack down on the bad behavior. As time goes on, Yelp will need to become more sophisticated in finding businesses that buy reviews, and businesses will probably become more savvy in dodging Yelp’s rules. It’s a twisted cat-and-mouse game that hurts  the consumers and the businesses in the long run.

Yelp is the only winner here, and they are taking the lead in the social search space with their new consumer alert badge for businesses that buy reviews. Don’t be surprised if you see Urbanspoon or other search services rolling out similar features in the months to come.

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