Yelp spotlights its bogus reviews
The online ratings company isn’t just flagging fake reviews; it’s indexing them for easy access. It's probably a good idea.
Earlier this summer, the local news picked up a story about a woman in San Jose, California who’s waging a one-woman war of sorts against fake Yelp reviews. In 2017, Kay Dean received a letter at her home after leaving a one-star Yelp review for a psychiatry clinic in the area. Weeks later, she received a letter from a law firm demanding she remove the offending review. The letter contained a $50 check. (In a later twist, the lawyer who purportedly signed the letter denied knowing anything about the arrangement, meaning the lawyer’s name and signature was used without their permission.)
The “law firm” clearly targeted the wrong reviewer; Dean previously worked as an investigator for the federal government and seems to have limitless energy for researching potentially deceptive reviews and creating YouTube videos to supplement them. (Coverage in SFGate, a San Francisco news site, called her videos “little-watched” which, bummer.)
In video notes, Dean explained why she chose to do start the video series: “I’m creating these videos to expose this massive fraud against the American public and shine a light on Big Tech’s culpability,” she wrote.
“Big Tech” appears to be working on this problem, continually.
It is not lost on me that I, someone who could rarely resist participating in correcting someone else who was wrong on the internet, am reporting about the continued problem of people lying on the internet. Of course we do. Sometimes, though, it rises to a level of actual malfeasance.
Yelp today introduced a new compensated activity index, which is basically a landing page aggregating businesses with bunk reviews. It aggregates business pages with Yelp’s compensated activity alerts and suspicious review activity alerts. Especially engaging is Yelp’s invitation to “view the evidence here ->” displaying images of in-person signs and online pop-ups offering discounts on goods and services in exchange for a five-star review. (This behavior is explicitly prohibited.)
If you’re thinking that an entire newsletter devoted to Yelp essentially adding a landing page is overkill, I hear you. But if the review company hopes to stay relevant — and stave off action by an activist investor that’s called for a sale of the currently public company — it’s going to have to embrace the reality of online reviews in 2023. (Remember how well things went when social media companies essentially plugged their ears humming “Lalalala-can’t-hear-you” as misinformation spread during pivotal times in American history like the 2016 presidential election? Yeah, that.)
Plus, the Federal Trade Commission has already aggressively targeted large technology companies for a variety of assumed misdeeds under its leader, Lina Khan. Last year, the FTC proposed new rules and fines targeting companies that facilitate, participate in, or otherwise manipulate online reviews for profit. If approved, each fake review could carry a fine of up to $50,000 for each time a consumer sees it. (As I understand it, FTC fines target the businesses, not the review platforms — yet.)
Yelp released some consumer survey data in conjunction with its new landing page.
Per the company, consumers feel pressure to inflate ratings when they’re asked to leave a review. Yelp says that 65 percent of respondents who say they read reviews admitted they would write a more positive account of their experience if asked.
You could argue that a small embellishment of a local restaurant reads relatively innocent, because it does. But even the tiniest of coerced positivity could be contributing to a larger problem. For years, studies have indicated that so-called “review inflation” might tarnish a platform’s ability to present a thoroughly honest review. (A 2017 study found that the average business rating on Yelp was a 4.3 out of 5 stars, “not the 2.5 stars that you’d maybe expect.”)
Earlier this year, the New York Times reported on a previously secret meeting between reps from Yelp, Tripadvisor, Google, and other review sites. In a one-day, closed-door meeting, the companies discussed how they might work together to combat the problem. The FTC sent a representative, too.
In San Jose, Kay Dean works hard to combat the rule-breaking pay-for-play schemes, concerned about the more nefarious ones —the ones that came with bribes or extortion to edit people’s contributions. Not all rule-breaking reviews rise to this standard. But her principled stance on the matter highlights the stakes: flooding online resources with fictitious experiences makes the entire experience nearly useless for all of us.
This includes restaurants, which have experienced real financial damage (at worst) from bogus ratings, or maybe at best fell into ridiculous time-sucks handling the problem. I reported a story for Bon Appetit last summer about extortive Google reviews suddenly showing up on restaurants’ listings. Most included only a star rating with no context, a practice Google allows but Yelp does not. After being flooded with enough one-star reviews to ding their business rating, many restaurants reported receiving emails demanding small cash payments in exchange for removing the reviews. (None of the restaurants I spoke to paid the ransom, though some seemed to consider it in an act of time-saving desperation.)
Then, the business response, collectively, was something to the effect of: Why do we have to deal with these headaches and why won’t the tech companies do more to protect us? (In the case of the one-star Google reviews, the company did eventually identify and remove them.)
In a statement tied to today’s release, Yelp vice president of user operations, Noorie Malik, said in part, “This type of transparency is important to consumers as people are relying on reviews now more than ever to inform their purchases.”
I’m not one for tired now-more-than-ever framing of any situation; the stakes have always been high. But, the matter does feel particularly urgent given high-level FTC surveillance and Yelp’s future as a relevant and successful tool for honesty on the internet, a proposition that now feels completely impossible.
Square’s CEO steps down. Remember that Square outage last week that devastated a ton of small businesses and was poorly communicated? Me too.
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