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Think Yelp's Filter Is Protecting Consumers? Guess Again.

Why Yelp's Filter Algorithms Are Fake

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Do you have something to say about your own Yelp experience? Complain About Yelp (you can do so anonymously.)

Yelp promotes its review website as a consumer-friendly place with "Real people. Real reviews."

By "real", I think it safe to assume Yelp means unpaid reviewers who speak their mind honestly, without bias (the "real reviews" part.) But Yelp's own practices of filtering reviews suggest that is often not the case. Look at just about any business listed on Yelp and you will see filtered reviews. These are reviews that Yelp has deemed suspicious, or "not real."

It is important to understand Yelp claims it only filters reviews it suspects as being fake, and that the algorithms they use to detect and isolate "fakes" are universally applied to every single business listed on their site.

At least that is what they say.

Yelp claims not to (knowingly) filter legitimate reviews, or to manipulate a business' rating (filtered reviews are not factored into ratings.) Okay, so what happens when a reviewed takes time to contact Yelp and offer assurances they are not fake? Nothing.

On November 16, 2012, a Los Angeles dental practice showed 35 public reviews, and 85 filtered reviews. Of those filtered only five are negative, 80 positive reviews are hidden. Of the total number of reviews, 71 percent were filtered because Yelp deemed all these people liars, biased, paid, or otherwise fake reviewers.

Seventy one percent? That seems almost absurd when you take time to read those filtered reviews and check into some of the very credible posters who wrote those reviews.

Yelp's "Fake" Filter Algorithms

The decision about whether or not a review shows on a business' profile or is filtered is done completely by robots that act on secret algorithms. As a programmer and web marketing professional I have a problem with this. Anytime robots are involved, people will find a way to game them, and, in the process robots take even tighter control. And that always results in innocents being affected. When you remove the human and leave it entirely up to robots, things just do not work well. Even Google has real people who will answer your concerns, complains, questions -- and even take the time to research and respond with corrective actions to right a wrong created by a Google bot.

But Yelp is not Google.

It is generally believed that Yelp algorithms automatically suspect:

  • New users;
  • One time reviewers;
  • Entire IP addresses when multiple reviews from a single user, or multiple users post from an IP address;
  • Positive reviews (significantly more positive reviews are immediately filtered than are negative reviews);
  • Number of reviews by a single user;
  • Yelp reviewers that do not have Yelp "friends."

Complaints From Business Owners

Complaints from business owners about Yelp continue to flood forums, websites, and even the news media, that Yelp continues to bully business owners. These are all allegations, but enough people are complaining that it is at least noteworthy. Here are just a few recent complaints.

Kelly Calandro Claims Yelp Deleted Her Restaurant's Positive Reviews After She Refused To Buy Ads (09/14/2012). Calandra claims when she and her husband opened a new restaurant Yelp began calling to sell them services. When they refused, their positive reviews were filtered and their rating went down.

On Yelp's blog, the following post appeared on 10/20/12: "Nick "Aldo" P. says: I was talking with a friend yesterday and she said all but one of her positive reviews had been removed by yelp leaving a few that were not the greatest...she said yelp had been calling her for weeks and offered to repair the problem for a monthly fee of $ 4oo.oo !!! Google yelp extortion to find out more about this. she is very upset and they keep calling her demanding money???? What the hell is going on here yelpers???"

Yur Tz, posted on Yelp's blog: "The first time I got a call, the [Yelp] rep made some changes to show me how it can help manage the customer reviews. Magically after I rejected the offer, old bad reviews that had not been there prior to the sales pitch appeared. I have the screen captures to prove it."

"...Yelp has filtered 19 good reviews from my account, but keeps two negative reviews posted. Supposedly, their algorithm filters reviews from users who don't post much, and don't have Yelp friends, but interestingly, one negative review shows this bad review is the one and only time this person has posted to Yelp, and he has no Yelp friends so they are violating their own policy!" Saveusfromyelp.com

On pixsym.com, Dolly reports, "I am speechless. I am a local business owner and just yesterday I turned down yelp ad's sales pitch and today, all 4 of my genuine reviews went missing. Turns out they were filtered!! I do not feel that it is a coincidence." Poster TSL was one a many who replied to Dolly with similar complaints, "Same here, I got a call from Yelp soliciting advertising, I politely declined. The next day all of my reviews were filtered. Yelp the internet MAFIA! Shaking businesses down."

Complaints From Yelp Reviewers

Reviewers are also frustrated with Yelp's filtering system, that leans towards suspecting all positive reviews of being fakes:

On Yelp's blog, Robnielson1 posted, "I always check Yelp before I visit a restaurant or business for the first time. My only beef is that when I posted a positive review for the place I get my hair cut, they wouldn't post it, saying they thought I was paid. Just because I really like the people who cut my hair, and I was passionate about my endorsement, you can't penalize me or them for that!"

Saveusfromyelp.com, is rich with complaints from both business owners as well as frustrated reviewers: "Both I and a co-worker of mine used a company & had glowing reports to post on Yelp about this company and now we find out that Yelp deleted our positive reviews! I have e-mailed Yelp & informed them if they do not restore my review asap I'll cancel my Yelp account & let everybody know they are fraudulent."

On Reddit.com, "Last year a new restaurant opened up and we went the first night - and it was amazing. So I posted a review reflecting that. After a few months, the owner emailed me and asked if I took down my review (we became regulars) ... checked and Yelp had hidden mine. ...[Yelp's] response was essentially that my review was too positive, too early, that I must be affiliated with the restaurant. I requested that they put it back, but they refused and stuck with their position that I was a fake reviewer."

Reviewers May Also Prey On Business Owners

Reviewers may also attempt to extort business owners, threatening to post negative reviews if they don't pay up. One restaurant patron claimed he got food poisoning at a local restaurant but if the owner would give him a $100 gift card he would not post a bad review on Yelp. Yelp Extortion: Sacramento Man Tries To Blackmail Restaurant With Bad Review . Yelp claims absolutely no responsibility for reviews, or accountability to business owners. They are only a "forum."

I find this lack of accountability hard to accept. If a landlord rents out house to a tenant who then sets up a meth lab, the landlord can also be held accountable (at least partially), for the actions of their tenants. Why can't Yelp be held to at least some level of accountability for the actions of those they allow on their website, and to businesses who are listed against their wishes, and then suffer as a result?

What can you do? Not a lot. If you are a business owner you cannot get delisted from Yelp and you may need to ramp up your Internet brand on social networks. But I strongly encourage business owners to think twice before paying anything to Yelp for advertising -- it won't help. Yelp cannot legally unfilter positive reviews for a fee or keep them filtered if you do not pay. Any sales pitches or promises made to you along those lines are very unlikely to be delivered.

If you are a frustrated reviewer, you are also pretty much out of luck. Even if algorithms did filter your review, it may also have been done because a business owner has not "signed" up for "advertising" services yet.

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