Yelp asks in a blog post, "What good are online reviews if you can't trust their authenticity?"
That's a really good question, and an important one that review sites have to grapple with as businesses and spammers constantly try to manipulate them. In some senses it's not all that different than spammers manipulating search results, a problem that Google continues to battle. The fact of the matter is that consumers can never be 100% sure that what they're seeing online is completely authentic. Even major websites and social media accounts are hacked on occasion. How do you know what you're reading online is real?
Yelp, for its part, thinks it can assure users of the authenticity of its own reviews at least. Do you trust the reviews you read on Yelp? Let us know in the comments.
Yelp maintains that 85% of consumers rely on the Internet and review sites to find local businesses, and decide where to spend their money, and that 108 million people per month turned to Yelp last quarter. That's a lot of people, and a lot of information about real businesses consumed. A lot of opinions shaped. A lot of decisions made about whether or not to ever set foot inside a business.
There are those out there who are paying people for fake reviews on Yelp, and Yelp knows this. This could be people paying for fake positive reviews for their own business, or it could be fake negative reviews of competitors' businesses.
"We’ve always taken the quality of content on Yelp very seriously - our automatic review algorithm, user support team and flag system work overtime to monitor the content on our site," says Yelp VP of Consumer & Mobile Products, Eric Singley. "We’ve gone to extensive measures to make sure that the consumers who come to Yelp can trust those reviews to reflect the real life experience they will have with that business."
Singley began his stint at Yelp working on the company's search and consumer products, and then managing and designing its mobile apps. He currently oversees the site and apps.
Back in October, Yelp launched its Consumer Alerts feature:
These are warnings to users that appear when Yelp has found a business that has paid for reviews. Yelp removes the alert from the business' page after 90 days, unless they find more efforts aimed at misleading users.
Yelp started the program off with nine businesses it had already busted. It has now launched a new round of alerts.
"We’ve seen some pretty extreme chicanery in connection with these businesses, including people buying fake reviews, offering rewards or discounts for reviews or having a large number of reviews submitted from the same Internet Protocol (IP) address (a clue that someone may be trying to artificially inflate their rating)," says Singley.
He notes that is kind of activity is illegal, and points to FTC guidelines.
"There will always be fraudsters out there who try to game the system, but we’re doing our best to not let that ruin the value so many millions of people get from Yelp - the trust that allows 4 out of 5 Yelp users to feel confident when consulting our site before spending money at a local business," says Singley. "In the end, it’s up to consumers to choose a business that fits their needs, but the Consumer Alerts program is our attempt to inform them of suspicious behavior we have clearly identified."
So, is the attempt working? Does it make consumers trust Yelp reviews more? Some (including businesses) out there don't trust Yelp itself. It seems the company's service is frequently the subject of various lawsuits (often defamation), and businesses have even accused Yelp itself of extortion, claiming that it buries reviews with its filter in an attempt to get businesses to advertise on Yelp. Yelp, of course, strongly denies that this is the case. Regardless of whether or not it's true, you have to think these claims have made an impact on Yelp's reputation.
Yelp has been making moves to cater more to businesses, and looks to be moving more into a direct ecommerce direction, with features like Call to Action and Transactions. Yelp also just acquired SeatMe for online reservsations, and recently started matching users' photos with their reviews, which means more imagery for business pages.
Whether or not Yelp is doing a good job at eliminating fake reviews is surely debatable, but you can't deny that they're taking the issue seriously. In June, it was reported that Yelp had filed a lawsuit against a site that sells Yelp reviews. Interestingly, that site (BuyYelpReview.com) now redirects to an article called, "Yelp and the Business of Extortion 2.0". It's six pages long.
Yelp released its earnings report a couple weeks ago. It posted a 69% increase in revenue (year over year), and announced that its cumulative reviews were up 41% at over 42.5 million. Quite a few reviews. The company did not indicate whether this number included fake reviews in its announcement. Average monthly unique visitors were up 38%, and active local business accounts grew 62% to about 51,400.
Fake reviews are not good for anyone other than those who are paying for them. They're not good for consumers, and they're not good for honest businesses who fall victim to shady competitors. While Yelp's numbers are looking pretty good, they're not good for Yelp either, and isn't it in the company's best interest to make sure they aren't permeating its site, making people lose trust? If people stop trusting Yelp, they're going to stop using it.
The question is: Is Yelp doing a good job of containing the issue of fake reviews and maintaining user and business trust? Can you, as a business or as a consumer, trust what you read on Yelp? Let us know what you think in the comments.