Who Do You Trust?

You’re out and about and it’s time to eat. You’re not in the mood for fast food, but you’re not sure what else is available nearby. What do you do?

If you’re like millions of other people, you whip out your phone, run a quick search for nearby restaurants and check Yelp to see how the reviews look. The trouble is, that may not give you the full story.

Though clearly the 800-pound gorilla of online review sites, Yelp has had its share of controversy and scandal, especially in recent months. It started with an increasing number of business owners accusing Yelp of everything from unfairly filtering reviews through outright extortion. It was all anecdotal, but at some point complaints become numerous enough that they start looking like they have substance. MakeUseOf recently featured the mess, including this thumbnail sketch of how things seemed to play out all too often:

The story is always the same:
– Yelp approaches a business and asks if they want to advertise with Yelp for a modest price.
– If the business declines, Yelp pursues them with more aggression.
– If the business still declines, their Yelp rating plummets as their 4- and 5-star reviews become filtered for no apparent reason.
Not surprisingly, this story also flows the other way:
– Yelp approaches a business and asks if they want to advertise with Yelp for a modest price.
– If the business accepts, they pay the fees.
– Coincidentally, they begin receiving good reviews that boost their rating while having poor reviews filtered out.

This story — or a similar version of it — played out so many times that a lawsuit was finally brought against the company to force them to cease and desist these alleged practices. The verdict was rendered earlier this fall, with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruling in favor of Yelp’s ability to legally manipulate its ratings to earn more money.

On the one hand, this makes some sense. After all, Yelp is a publicly traded company, and that means its purpose is to earn money for its shareholders. There are many companies — and indeed some entire industries — that exist and thrive in an ethical gray area, many of which could easily be said to be much worse than this. However, on the other hand, for a site whose sole purpose is to provide legitimate reviews to consumers on behalf of businesses to manipulate those reviews in a way that looks a whole lot like extortion, well, it just doesn’t pass the smell test.

Yelp steadfastly maintains its innocence, claiming it uses an automated system to promote and demote businesses based on their star rankings, and there isn’t really any hard evidence of wrongdoing (the 9th Circuit merely ruled that it would be legal if Yelp chose to manipulate its reviews, not that they actually were manipulating them). Are there plenty of valid reviews on Yelp, and is it still useful as a tool to guide consumers to the best products and services? Certainly. Is this a problem unique to Yelp? Certainly not.

In fact, the same arguments can likely be made about any major review service, and finding legitimate, fair, and honest reviews will probably remain a challenge for as long as human civilization exists. But, in the meantime, there are other options. Urbanspoon is an obvious alternative for food choices. TripAdvisor is focused on visitors, but the information is just as valid for locals, too. Major search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing generally provide review information on restaurants, events, and many other things. Angie’s List is another big name in the industry, trying to solve the review problem by requiring a paid subscription to use the service, and a more stringent review vetting process (though the same accusations have plagued it in the past, too). There are many others, some based on location, some based on a topic, and some based on nothing at all. Search around and try some new sites; you may be pleasantly surprised.

At the end of the day, this mess with Yelp should be at minimum a cautionary tale to both business owners and consumers alike. Small businesses can spend a lot of time and effort trying to appease online reviewers, and to do so for reviews that are deliberately squelched or unfairly manipulated is both costly and maddening. Similarly, consumers may miss a high quality business simply because it has run afoul of a review service, or go to a business expecting one thing and getting something entirely different, causing an equally maddening experience. The bottom line is that online reviews should always be viewed with a giant grain of salt. If you want to be really thorough, it’s probably best to use multiple services to check any business. It should probably go without saying, of course, that asking people you know with first hand experience of those businesses is perhaps the best way to go because they’re not trying to make money off of their recommendation. Of course, their recommendation may depend on what they think of you, but that’s an entirely different subject…

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