Yelp and Its Discontents

The Trilateral Commission. Bilderberg. The Freemasons. RAND Corp. The Illuminati. And, apparently, Yelp. The conspiracy-minded among us have long been convinced that the world is run by a secret cabal of wealthy elite, moving us ordinary folk around like pawns on a chess board for their own hidden purposes. Not content with running the financial system, controlling the government, or installing a new world order, they have apparently set their sights on the tantalizing target of local social media.

At least that’s the feeling I got after reading through some of the e-mails and comments generated by my article on Yelp and my follow-up asking for information from anyone who felt that Yelp had wronged them. Many of the e-mails were well-written and to the point. Others called for me and Yelp to burn in hell and to “PRAY PSALMS 140 FOR THEIR DESTRUCTION!” A comment on my story on another Web site called me a pathetic little sack of shit who is carrying water for Jeremy Stoppleman, Yelp’s CEO. (Do I have to say it? Not true.) But none, to my mind, offered clear evidence of any sort of plot by Yelp to coerce business owners into paying Yelp to game its own system.

I’ve categorized the complaints to better explain my conclusion:

Yelp uses high-pressure sales tactics.
Probably true, or at least has been true in the past, and may continue to be so now. But this is also true of many other business-to-business companies. Yelp has built a product that gives it incredible leverage over its target market. As a counterpoint, a small nonprofit I once worked for needed to lease a new copy machine and a few new laser printers. In exchange for the contract, the sales rep offered my boss two new flat-screen televisions, delivered to his home, to sign the deal. My boss politely but firmly asked the salesman to apply the cost of the TVs to reducing the cost of the copy machine. The sales game is quite often one of carrot and stick. And in Yelp’s case, it knows it has the stick.

When a business declines to advertise on Yelp, its positive ratings mysteriously disappear.
Lack of evidence. Just to be clear: While I admire Yelp’s business model, I would love to catch it manipulating reviews red-handed. It’d be the story of the year. But only an extremely diligent business owner will be able to do this. It would require that business owner to save every Yelp review of his business, record his business’s daily star ranking, and wait for a sales call from Yelp. After the owner declines to advertise, he’ll have to continue doing the exact same monitoring in order to watch for a drop or any suspicious deletions. And even then, Yelp’s regular fluctuations, or a decline in the business’s service, could be the culprit.

Kathleen Richards, a journalist who earned Yelp’s ire with a mostly anonymously sourced story on Yelp’s strong-arm tactics, admirably followed up with a completely on-the-record report. For me, the anonymity Richards granted was never an issue, as I have no reason to question her journalistic ethics. But both stories made clear how challenging it would be to catch Yelp in any duplicity.

The business owners she talked to essentially had the same stories. They would note that one day their Yelp rankings were high, and some other day, after a phone call from Yelp’s sales team, their rankings were low. They also would have trouble getting rid of spammy reviews — something Yelp has since addressed by letting business owners respond to reviews for free. While upsetting for them and definitely worthy of complaint, that’s not enough to win a claim for damages.

Additionally, spokeswoman Stephanie Ichinose freely admitted that Yelp has an automated moderation system that sometimes removes legitimate reviews from businesses’ pages. And business owners get upset even when their rankings improve thanks to that system. Removed reviews may have been written by users whose reputations have declined, or the moderation system may have identified the reviewer as a shill or a disgruntled employee. Several users e-mailed me to express confusion over the fact that their reviews weren’t removed from their own pages or views of the Web site but were removed from everyone else’s view of the exact same page. Ichinose e-mailed, “This system proves frustrating for some because it sometimes affects perfectly legitimate reviews. The flip side is that it helps protect against fake reviews from malicious competitors and disgruntled former employees. We think we’ve struck a balance that works well for business owners and consumers alike.”

I asked Ichinose whether Yelp has considered creating an “archive” page of sorts, which a user could click on to see every rejected review for any given business. She replied: “If we show businesses what we regard as legitimate/valued (versus not), it helps them figure out our system that much faster. There isn’t an easy solution, but we continue to explore ways to stay ahead of this.” Yelp should indeed find a way to alert users when their reviews are marked for removal, as its current system does create confusion and mistrust.

For readers who think it sounds as if Yelp is overpolicing its review process, consider the e-mail I received from the owner of a Web site that offers to deploy, for a fee, the reviewing talents of more than 500 apparently compromised Yelp “proxy accounts” for any business owners who feel their Yelp scores are “inaccurate.”

Yelp deletes perfectly accurate reviews.
True. Robert Dall, who runs the Coffee Vancouver blog, was solicited by a Yelp employee to add reviews from his blog to Yelp’s new Vancouver listings. After doing so, and noting his blog url in each review, Yelp deleted his reviews and locked out his account, accusing him of spamming. After Robert wrote up his story and contacted Yelp, it realized it had made an error and offered to reinstate him. Understandably, he declined.

Robert’s story is indicative of Yelp’s main problem, which is what sparks much of the vitriol directed at the site. And that problem is that Yelp is a black box. Yelp’s emphasis on “real people, real reviews” makes more sense now —surely, as Stoppleman and Co. designed the site, they realized how much control they’d have to exert over the content to keep Yelp from turning into the fundamentally useless, which lists local businesses whose reviews all seem written by shills and cranks. Indeed, Citysearch has lately turned heavily toward editorial content, downplaying users’ comments on the page. But with Yelp’s emphasis on social networking, a similar approach isn’t a viable option.

Even as Ichinose explained Yelp’s need to keep its moderation standards a secret in order to prevent others from gaming the system, she admitted, “there isn’t an easy solution” to balancing transparency with protecting Yelp’s integrity. And commenting on another Yelp story, she wrote, “We’ve heard these requests and have begun to take steps to provide more clarity.”

“The issues we face are not dissimilar to the challenges Google faces with Web sites who try to get the top search result spot,” Ichinose told me. Indeed, when I researched a story on how Google works, I had to dig through dozens of engineering conference videos and whitepapers and, of course, an explanation of the patented algorithm that Google’s (GOOG) founders developed while they were students at Berkeley. I looked at satellite photos of their data centers and compared their locations to the locations of trunk lines coming in from underwater cables leading to Asia and Europe. And I pieced together facts from interviews that explained how Google’s servers are a Borg-like self-replicating, energy-efficient hive of distributed computing. When I assembled my article and tried to verify my findings with Google PR, it essentially told me I was on my own. And yet, despite its secrecy, Google is the largest search engine in the world and has raked in billions in advertising.

There just seems to be something more personal about Yelp dissing a beloved coffee shop than Google dissing a beloved blog, both by dint of low rankings and algorithms that attempt to weigh and score every bit of data on the coffee shop or blog that can be mustered. But Ichinose is basically right in that the two sites are fundamentally trying to do the same thing. One search for “Google optimization” will illuminate how many people are trying to “game” Google’s system and helps explain why Google feels it has to keep much of its system a secret.

Yet Google has managed to seem more transparent and open to the general public. It does this both by giving helicopter-level explanations of how things work and clear explanations of how changes it makes to its systems might change the user experience. Yelp would do well to study Google’s approach, to let businesses know how and why their ratings suddenly dropped, and to let users know their review was banned. Perhaps Yelp should also provide some clear mechanism for a human-based override. This is all especially relevant since Google has lately reworked its own social local-business review listings, seemingly to compete with Yelp.

Lastly, many small businesses still shudder not at the mention of Yelp but at the mention of the Better Business Bureau, and all over the Internet are stories similar to this one. Coming from that world, Yelp is already a great leap forward in transparency; after all, the BBB won’t accept complaints about itself, but anyone can go here and complain about Yelp. But Yelp has had some stumbles that have created both legitimate complaints and fodder for those who wear tinfoil hats.

Is Yelp perfect? No. Episodes like the one Dall experienced should be avoided and should be a lesson for a company that relies on its reviewers to stay in business. And Yelp advertising sales representatives should be given strict instructions to direct questions about reviews or scores to another department or to Yelp’s business-owner FAQ.

Yelp should also provide a “nuclear option,” of listing a business’s contact information but allowing a business owner to request that no reviews of any sort be posted on its page. It’s only fair to provide a way for businesses to opt out of commentary, for better or for worse. I doubt many owners would take Yelp up on this —far too many have benefited from the exposure. Which is why it shouldn’t surprise a small-business owner to learn that as much as he loves pouring lattes or filling cavities, Yelp, just like him, is also in business to make a buck or two along the way.

Paul Smalera has written for Condé Nast Portfolio, The New York Times and The New York Observer among others. He has a blog at true/slant and lives in Brooklyn.

Yelp and Its Discontents