"We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us"

Yelp Sucks

A noble idea has apparently morphed into something that's at best untrustworthy, at worst an extortion racket

Published: Jan 10, 2013

I deal with a lot of small businesses across the country. One truism that gets repeated over and over again is that "word of mouth" advertising is their most valuable commodity. Out of that notion, Yelp was born.

If you're not familiar with Yelp, a basic synopsis: Any person can submit a review of a business. Restaurants are particularly popular subjects. Reviewers also assign a star-rating, from one to five stars.

OK, so far so good. Of course, the well-known problem with this paradigm is that there's no way to verify if the reviewer is a genuine customer. They could just as easily be someone paid by the business being reviewed to give them a great review. Conversely, they could also be the owner of a competing business, out to do a little corporate sabotage.

Naturally, this problem plagues most every review site. However, Yelp claims to have some kind of filtering system to tag "bogus" reviews and hide them. And, based on complaints from a lot of people, that filter doesn't work very well. I've personally seen perfectly valid reviews disappear from Yelp. Some have suggested that people who only have one review are filtered, because it's likely they're just a friend reviewing a business as a favor. I don't know how true that is, but it's a staggeringly stupid notion if that's what they're doing. Really, it's a pain to log on and write up a complaint or compliment. I can imagine that a lot of people would only have one review.

On the other end of the scale, Yelp encourages people to write reviews by giving them special status as "elite" reviewrers. I have difficulty imagining having such an empty life that writing Yelp reviews for affirmation becomes important. I would guess "Elite Yelp Reviewer" is a synonym for "loser living in mom's basement".

I might not have such a sceptical view of all this, but Yelp doesn't really seem interested in fixing even obvious problems. I personally know a business who received a review on Yelp. Right in the review, the person admits she didn't actually do business with them. But Yelp has completely ignored the owner's pleas to remove the review.

Lately, however, I'm hearing about a much darker side to this. More than a few businesses report suddenly getting bad reviews and then getting a call from Yelp offering them advertising packages. They never come out and say that paying advertisers get better treatment, but the implication is certainly there. There's really something scummy about hitting up businesses for advertising fees when they control your Yelp profile. "Nice reputation you got there, it'd be a shame if something happened to it."

And even if Yelp's not doing it, reviewers are. The latest scam is customers demanding free meals at restaurants or they'll post a bad review on Yelp.

One definite way that paying Yelp lets you "fix" problems is that you can choose which one of your reviews to "feature". That featured review is the one that will appear in the Google search results. Just seeing a bad review in the search results can turn off a potential customer, they may never even click through to Yelp to see the dozens of other wonderful reviews.

The bottom line is that you just can't trust what you read on Yelp any more than any other review site like Google. Given the issues, Yelp is probably the least trustworthy of all the review sites out there.

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