Yelp Fake Reviews Under Fire
October 18, 2012

Yelp Tattles On Lying Business Owners

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

Yelp knows you paid for that review, and now they´re going to tell everyone about it.

The social networking/business review service allows users to leave reviews for their favorite businesses. Others on the service are then able to see these reviews, and many decide to dine at or dash away from a particular establishment based on these reviews. In fact, recent studies have found that for every half-star in a 5-star system that a reviewer bestows upon a restaurant, that establishment can see as much as a 19% increase in their business.

With stars and high reviews so critical to a smaller business' bottom line, it´s easy to predict what happens next: Some places try to game the Yelp review system, bribing or paying off their customers to leave favorable reviews for their business on the increasingly popular service.

In order to get ahead of this behavior, Yelp set up a sting operation to catch some of these companies in the act. According to a New York Times piece, Yelp began to closely watch 9 companies, including a moving company and 2 repair shops.

These companies were found guilty of buying their positive reviews and, as such, have earned themselves an alert on their Yelp page which reads: “We caught someone red-handed trying to buy reviews for this business.”

Customers are even able to see the evidence of these accusations in the form of an email from the business asking to hire a reviewer.

“The alert will be removed from the business´s Yelp page after 90 days (unless we uncover any renewed efforts to mislead consumers). Initially, nine businesses will have the consumer alert message posted on their profile page, but the company will be posting alerts like these on an on-going basis, as warranted,” writes Yelp in their official Yelp blog.

Yelp also says they´ve put a filter in place to detect these overly generous and biased reviews and remove them, as well as tattling on the company who decided to cheat at the game of Yelp.

Pointing to an independent report, Yelp says Businessweek has also found that Yelp´s review filters returned “impressive results,” detecting and removing the fake reviews while leaving the earnest reviews intact. The Businessweek report tells a story about a Texas business owner who paid a man in Bangladesh to write up to 200 fake reviews for sites like Google and Yelp. The Texan felt they weren´t doing anything wrong, saying their customers have praised the company before, just not online where it counts.

According to the Times, these offending companies were able to get these faux favorable reviews posted on the site by hiring “Elite” reviewers on Yelp. These Elite reviewers are users who have a proven track record with their reviews. These companies posted ads on Craigslist and other sites in search of these elite reviewers, asking them to either post reviews the businesses had already written or original material. A Yelp employee posed as one of these elite reviewers and got the businesses to identify themselves, earning them the new alert.

“My intuition is that public shaming would increase the risk and therefore the cost of posting fake reviews, which could reduce the prevalence,” said Myle Ott, a doctoral candidate in computer science at Cornell who spoke with the Times concerning Yelp´s actions.

While it may seem noble of Yelp to try and catch these businesses in the act of gaming the system, Ott also wondered about business owners who might try to flip this around.

“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?”