Once again, Yelp is drawing the kind of media attention that it would like to avoid, but which has been following it around for years. You know the deal. A business claims Yelp is holding positive reviews hostage in its review filter because they refused to pay for ads. We hear this claim time and time again from business after business, and it can't be good for Yelp's reputation.
Do you really believe Yelp does this? Share your thoughts in the comments.
This time, a reddit post to the Toronto subreddit is the starting point. It has roughly 250 comments at the time of this writing, mostly from others bashing the company. A few other media outlets, including the Daily Dot and Consumerist have reported on it. The reddit post, titled "I want Reddit Toronto to see how bogus Yelp is" goes like this:
My family opened a Mediterranean Restaurant approximately 2 years ago called Ba-Li Laffa. During the first number of weeks, we were approached by a marketing member of Yelp who asked us to pay a fee for preferential display on the Yelp website. Due to the fact that were we a new establishment and bills were through the roof at that point, we politely declined their offer. This is where the issues with Yelp begin to arise.
Yelp claims to have an "advanced review engine" that apparently is knowledgable to sift out all the "fake" reviews and only put the "legitimate" reviews visible to those who are searching the restaurant. In theory this makes sense that those account with the sole review being that of your restaurant are probably fake accounts (or possibly someone that you asked to review it for you). Although this is not how it works, and according to numerous accounts from other restauranteurs that I have met through reddit, it is essentially a blackmail money grab by Yelp.
If you go to the site of our restaurant, http://www.yelp.com/biz/ba-li-laffa-kosher-mediterranean-grill-vaughan, you will see that 5 reviews have been selected, all 2/5 stars. If you look below the 5th review, in a light grey text it says "23 other reviews that are not currently recommended". The majority of those "not recommended" reviews are by users with multiple reviews who have given the restaurant between 4-5/5 stars. In essence, they have taken every good review and made it categorized as a "bad review".
Fortunately, our restaurant is not suffering from a lack of customers because our food and service is great (obviously my opinion), but the number of customers we are losing from internet traffic to Yelp is unfortunate. The problem is that the majority of people making review based decisions either visit Yelp or Urban Spoon (which our restaurant is not on). Maybe I'm giving a little too much credit to Yelp for their popularity, but even if I am losing a minor percentage of my business due to their unfavourable reviews they are giving to our restaurant, it is very frustrating because there is nothing I can do about it.
I have message the Yelp Business support center numerous times with no helpful directions or answers. I think word of mouth from these types of things are really important especially because of how many people use and trust Yelp.
As usual, there is no actual evidence revealed. The Daily Dot shares a response from Yelp (along with a screenshot showing positive reviews it says were "likely fraudulent"):
Yelp told the Daily Dot the team had hidden the positive reviews because they’d found them all to be sent from the same IP address within a short period of time, indicating fraud. “In cases where businesses have a large number of reviews that aren't recommended, it’s often because they’ve solicited positive reviews from friends, family, or favorite customers or tried to game the system by writing fake reviews for themselves. Yelp does not support these practices as they result in biased reviews which aren’t useful to consumers,” a Yelp spokesperson said.
The screenshot shows five accounts created within 45 minutes of each other, all writing five-star reviews of the same business, and with email addresses: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org. It shows that they all joined on 6/1/2013. Only one is listed as having logged in since then.
No, that's not very legitimate-looking.
Some have argued in the past that IP address isn't a great signal, because there could be other reasons people leave reviews from the same address, like if they're leaving it from the business' actual venue. That, however, would also be taken as a negative signal by Yelp, because it might suggest to the company that you're asking people for reviews, and for better or worse, it basically considers this spam.
Strangely enough, they advise you against asking customers for a Yelp review, but instead suggest you tell them to "check you out on Yelp".
If Yelp is not engaging in the practice described by the reddit poster, it's quite phenomenal that SO many businesses have made essentially the exact same claims, and are showing no signs of stopping. That is some real dedication to a conspiracy theory by a slew of businesses seemingly unrelated to each other. It's even been brought up on the People's Court.
But still, nobody is able to show any proof, and Yelp's screenshot seems to blatantly illustrate abuse. There's no Consumer Alert on the business' page, however.
Unfortunately for Yelp, the loudest voice in this argument is the one of distrust and anger. Just peruse the reddit thread for a few minutes, and you'll find slam after slam. Typically, it's a similar situation in other comment threads on the subject.
The Better Business Bureau has defended Yelp, and given it an A+ rating. That's actually down to a C+ now, interestingly enough.
As one redditor pointed out, the BBB isn't exactly held in the highest regard by some either. They point to a Google search for "better business bureau extortion," saying, the BBB is "cut from the same extortionist cloth" as Yelp.
The search brings up articles with titles like "Why the Better Business Bureau Should Give Itself a Bad Grade" from Time, "BBB Better Business Bureau LEGAL EXTORTION? LEGAL BLACKMAIL??" from Ripoff Report, and "Better Business Bureau Gives Itself an 'F' in Los Angeles" from ABC News.
"I gotta agree here, the BBB isn't doing their job," another redditor responded. "I had a valid complaint against a local company that delivered me the wrong piece of furniture, took it back, but then refused to refund the $100 delivery charge. I complained to BBB, the business essentially said again that they wouldn't refund me, and BBB marked the complaint as resolved (leaving them with a B rating)."
Yelp may very well be innocent in all of this, but its real battle seems to be defending itself from hordes of angry Internet users, which it does time and time again. Until someone is able to offer up some real proof that Yelp is engaging in the behavior that it's so frequently accused of, I don't imagine much will change for the foreseeable future.
Consumerist suggests "someone start a fake restaurant called 'The Honey Pot' and wait for Yelp to call with a tape recorder hooked to the phone 24/7."
Luckily for Yelp, all of the negativity on the Internet (and in actual news reports, not just reddit and blog comments) has done seemingly very little to hurt its business. Its quarterly revenue was up 65% year over year.
Do you believe Yelp is really engaged in the kinds of things its accused of? If so, how can it be proven? If not, why are there so many businesses making the same allegations? Discuss in the comments.