At the LeWeb conference in London this week, Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman took to the stage to discuss his business with host Loic Le Meur. Inevitably, the topic of fake reviews and the Review Filter came up. This has been a bit of a controversial feature for businesses with some accusing Yelp of hiding positive reviews with the filter as a move to get the businesses to advertise. Though Yelp addressed such accusations in a recent blog post, Stoppelman didn’t get into that aspect of it here, and surprisingly nobody asked about it in the Q&A.
“Fake reviews [are] a constant battle,” said Stoppelman. “It’s something that we’ve faced from literally day one. Within a couple weeks of launching the site, we saw our first fake reviews. My co-founder and I knew immediately that we were going to have to solve this. So we set about finding an algorithmic solution, much like Google, and we call it the Review Filter. What it does is it looks at patterns of behavior on the site, and tries to decide as accurately as possible which reviews really can be relied on by consumers in the community and which we’re unsure about, we should set aside. And so on every business page, at the bottom, there’s a little link that says how many reviews have been filtered, and you can go follow that link, and see what we’ve taken off of that page. I think that’s been one of our, frankly, keys to success is that consumers, on average, can rely on the content they see on Yelp.”
Stoppelman continued, “We’re going to do our best to identify those strange patterns, and pull that content down, and so it does…it’s a new thing, and it’s caught businesses off guard because you know, frankly, the world prior to that, you know, sites like CitySearch and so forth, really didn’t spend a lot of time trying to protect against that, and so businesses got into the habit of just ‘Hey, if I want to be five stars, I just need to get enough friends to review me or I need to write enough fake reviews,’ and we’ve made sure that Yelp…you can’t do that. It’s not gonna work.”
Stoppelman told Le Meur that Yelp is ‘disrupting the Yellow Pages”.
“The Yellow Pages world was one of completely pay-to-play,” he said. “So if you had a local business, and you really wanted to be seen, you had to just pay an enormous amount of money, and that was it. Yelp turns that on its head, and actually puts consumers first. And so in our world now, if you’re a great local business, you actually get some exposure for free because your reviews speak for themselves. That’s going to get you some additional eyeballs, so that’s going to turn into some customers. If you want to go beyond that, and actually get some additional traffic, that’s where the advertising model comes in.”
It’s that advertising model that has led some businesses to go so far as to accuse Yelp of extortion, an accusation that the company takes a great deal of offense to.
Businesses have been throwing around such allegations for quite some time, but last month, the discussion came into a greater focus – so much that Yelp felt it needed to take to its corporate blog to defend itself. The post, titled, “No, Yelp Doesn’t ‘Extort’ Small Businesses. See For Yourself,” pointed specifically to a story run by The Washington Post full of businesses alleging wrongdoing on Yelp’s part.
The basic story, according to the report, is that a business gets a bunch of new customers because of reviews on Yelp, then Yelp reaches out to the business to advertise. If it doesn’t advertise, then the positive reviews start disappearing, and only negative or indifferent reviews stay, while the positive ones get buried in the filtered section, which is accessed when a user clicks and enteres a CAPTCHA.
Yelp maintains that advertiser data is not taken into account with the filtered section, but one business in the Washington Post’s story went so far as to say that a Yelp salesperson said they would unfilter filtered reviews if they advertised. The business owner claimed they did some “small scale” advertising, and “magically,” five or six of the filtered reviews became unfiltered.
But nobody has been able to prove any of this, and Yelp says this is all simply false.
But the complaints don’t stop with a few “sensational” (as Yelp calls them) reports. On our own coverage of the story, we’ve seen numerous readers express anger with Yelp.
Either way, users continue to flock to Yelp, and Yelp maintains that it’s generally reliable. Earlier this year, Yelp topped 100 million unique monthly visitors for the first time ,and in May, it revealed that its average uniques grew 43% year-over-year to 102 million, while revenue was up 68% year-over-year.