Small Business News

Yelp Under Fire Yet Again

Yelp is taking some harsh criticism in the media once again. Its handling of fake reviews is coming under fire, as is its worth to consumers. Business owners are speaking out (as usual), and celebrity chef/TV personality/food writer Andrew Zimmern, who has been critical of Yelp in the past, is calling it “worthless”.

Yelp recently announced that it had handed out a new round of consumer alerts – warnings that appear on business pages – calling out businesses for alleged foul Yelp review play. It also renewed alerts on some businesses that had previously received them.

“We normally remove alerts after 90 days, but we won’t hesitate to renew them if we continue to see suspicious activity,” said Yelp’s Kristen Whisenand on the company blog. “That’s exactly what happened for two businesses this time around. We again found something amiss with two of the locations for Chicago-based nail salon, Azure Nails. And someone was caught red-handed yet again trying to buy reviews for Evergreen.”

Chicago’s ABC 7 spoke with Azure’s owner Hoang Bui as well as with a Yelp spokesperson, who said Yelp found a “large number of positive reviews” coming from the same IP address, which it considered “a sign of someone trying to game the system and mislead consumers”. The news outlet reports:

When asked if he or his employees were writing reviews, Bui said “No. We have Wi-Fi here, and I asked my clients to write reviews right here in my business, and my clients use Wi-Fi here.”

But Yelp says it has additional evidence, including a negative review of a rival salon, from that same IP address.

Bui has his own allegations. He said he believes Yelp has made negative reviews more visible because he refused to pay for advertising.

Cathi Denham, the owner of doggie day care and luxury pet hotel Catnip n Biscuits said, “Customers leave reviews when they’re mad at us for something we wouldn’t do their way, and they’re negative reviews. We have some really good reviews on Yelp also, but you’ll never see those because they’re hidden in the filter button to filter out the good ones. It’s just wrong….it will say Yelp doesn’t recommend these reviews, but that’s where all our good reviews are. There’s no good reviews on the front page.”

She said that her rating dropped, and that is when Yelp began soliciting her to advertise.

“They don’t say it, but I know people that do advertise with Yelp that their negative reviews then disappear, and only the positive reviews show up,” she said.

Yeah, we’ve heard this story over and over again. Yelp denies that this happens, and calls such accusations “conspiracy theories” and the result of the Woozle effect. Yet the accusations keep coming from business owner after business owner.

Zimmern didn’t really get into any of that specifically, but says he finds Yelp and products like it to be “increasingly worthless” as a consumer. He was critical of Yelp’s ability to maintain legitimate content.

He told Eater, “Do I think that there’s some sort of satanic conspiracy going on over there or some covert plan to compensate people? No, I don’t. Do I think that there are some people who have taken a rogue position and easily tried to stretch boundaries and stuff? Yes, I do. That’s what happens with organizations that are horizontal and not vertical. In today’s world, especially the digital world, especially with a product like Yelp, the organization is horizontal and not vertical. There are always people trying to take advantage of stuff like this, so I imagine, sure, I don’t think Yelp can do a lot about how people interact with this forum.”

“It is their responsibility, and policing it is just a hard job,” he added. “That’s why I’m not giving them a pass. They’re probably scrambling to figure this shit out as much as anyone. I will tell you flat out that I continually find Yelp and products like it to be increasingly worthless to me as a consumer. That’s really where I feel strongest about it.”

He said later in the interview, “The last thing I want to do is utilize a service where millions of people are chiming in, and the results are tainted. Either it’s people who don’t know what they’re talking about shouting over the people who do … Look. There’s lots of people on Yelp whose opinions I would love to have, but you know what, I can’t use on Yelp, because Yelp to me is worthless.”

On Yelp’s effects on businesses, he told Eater, “Yelp, in a very perverse way, I may not like them or recommend them, but they have hit a core amongst viewers and they can move the needle. A good review in the New York Times used to be worth two million dollars. A good review on Yelp, they’ve put some sort of number attached to that. God bless them. It helps them sell ads, I’m sure. I think it’s a defective mechanism. It’s very, very popular. There’s tens of millions of people on that site.”

Either way, Yelp is encouraging people to leave a lot more reviews, and to say more in the reviews they do leave.

Fast Company interviewed Yelp Consumer and Mobile Products Vice President Eric Singley, who said the company has “always emphasized quality over quantity.”

But at the end of the year, Yelp sang the praises of its user who had written the most reviews during 2013. He wrote 1,712, which is roughly five a day. At that point, he had written about 7,000 of the site’s 47 million reviews.

Last year, Yelp finally made it so that users of its mobile apps can leave reviews, which has greatly contributed to quantity. Yelp released its Q4 and full year 2013 financials last month, and revealed that during the quarter, it had approximately 53 million mobile unique visitors and 30% of new reviews were contributed through mobile devices.

Yelp is actively encouraging higher quality with these reviews, however. Or at least higher word count. Singley pointed out to Fast Company for those who try to leave really short reviews, the app tells them, “This review is shorter than most.” They consider this “a nudge in the right direction.”

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