Online Customer Review Sites: Who’s Yelping Now?

The news this week that social networking and user review web site Yelp® will now de-couple the presentation of reviews from advertising programs comes as a rare victory for businesses that have been feeling more than a little pressured (blackmailed?) by the company’s strong-arm revenue-raising tactics.

The web has long had something of a “Wild West” atmosphere when it comes to reviews of businesses helping or (more likely) hurting the reputation of merchants.

Yelp is arguably the most significant of these sites. Since its inception in 2004 as a local site search resource covering businesses in the San Francisco metro area, Yelp has expanded to include local search and reviews of establishments in nearly 20 major urban markets. With its branding tagline “Real people. Real reviews®,” Yelp is visited by ~25 million people each month, making it one of the most heavily trafficked Internet sites in America.

Yelp solicits and publishes user ratings and reviews of local stores, restaurants, hotels and other merchants (even churches and doctor offices are rated), along with providing basic information on each entry’s location, hours of operation, and so forth – with nearly 3 million reviews submitted at last count.

Predictably, user ratings can have a great deal of influence over the relative popularity of the businesses in question. While most reviews are positive (ratings are on a 5-point scale), Yelp also employs a proprietary algorithm – some would say “secret formula” – to rank reviews based on a selection of factors ostensibly designed to give greater credence to “authentic” user reviews as opposed to “ringers” or “put-up jobs.”

Not surprisingly, Yelp hasn’t disclosed this formula to anyone.

So far, so good. But Yelp began to raise the ire of companies when its eager and aggressive advertising sales team began pitching paid promotional (sponsorship) programs to listed businesses that looked suspiciously like tying advertising expenditures to favorable treatment on reviews as a sort of quid quo pro.

Purchase advertising space on Yelp … and positive reviews miraculously start appearing at the top of the page. Decide against advertising … and watch the tables turn as they drop to the bottom or out of site altogether.

Concerns are so strong that three separate lawsuits have been filed this year already, culminating in a class-action lawsuit filed in February that accuses Yelp of “extortion,” including the claim that Yelp ad sales reps have offered to hide or bury a merchant’s negative customer reviews in exchange for signing them up as Yelp sponsors.

“The conduct is an offer to manipulate content in exchange for payment,” Jared Beck, an attorney for one of the plaintiffs, states bluntly.

As for whether Yelp’s announcement of new standards will now curb the rash of lawsuits, it seems clear that this is the intent. But so long as Yelp offers to do any sort of manipulation or reshuffling of reviews in exchange for advertising, the lawsuits will probably continue – even if there’s only the appearance of impropriety.

Oh, and don’t look for Yelp to provide any additional revelations regarding how reviews are sequenced to appear on the page. Too much transparency, and it’ll only make it easier for people to figure out how to “game” the ratings.

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