In Spring, 2012, I sent a complaint letter to Yelp, after favorable reviews I had posted about a business were immediately filtered. While browsing around Yelp I noticed something disturbing to the business woman in me -- the majority of filtered reviews were positive, while negative reviews remained prominent.
I asked Yelp why this was the case. Here, unlike how Yelp operates, is their unfiltered reply,
YELP: Kristen here from the Yelp PR team. I'm sure you've had a chance to read about our automated review filter on our blog here, but hopefully I can help clarify things a bit more.
Our filter is an automated system that works to protect both consumers and business owners from fake, shill or malicious reviews. In other cases, it affects positive reviews that appear to have been solicited by business owners (a practice which tends to create an unintentional bias). Since day one, Yelp has been a community review site, not a drive-by one. This emphasis on community and quality of content via our review filter is the reason, in Q4 of 2011, more than 66M unique visitors came to our site: because they trust the reviews and find them useful.
Yelp also offers business owners a FREE suite of tools which allows them to join the conversations that are happening about them online (including publicly or privately responding to online reviews). We have some great tips for how business owners can respond to online feedback on our blog here.
WIB: In 2011 I posted my first review on Yelp giving a business owner 5 out of 5 stars. They took care of my child with type 1 diabetes all summer long at their camp making it her first "normal" childhood experience since she was diagnosed. Your auto review immediately filtered it out and it is not factored in, nor seen by anyone. Why?
YELP: We understand that our review filter sometimes raises frustrations, but overall, we think the filter does a good job given the sheer volume of reviews and the difficulty of its task. It is this high cost that we've chosen to accept because we know the infinitely higher cost would be to not have an algorithm in place at all.
It is not a perfect system - the filter sometimes affects perfectly legitimate reviews and misses some fake ones, too. After all, legitimate reviews sometimes look questionable, and questionable reviews sometimes look legitimate.
Just to clarify, our review filtered is an automated system (meaning that no Yelp employee can manually filter or unfilter reviews).
Every review that has been filtered is still visible to users if they click the "Filtered Reviews" link at the bottom of the business listing.
WIB: The reason this upsets me so much is that your auto review removed my good review -- possibly because it was my first review - but isn't that what Yelp is about? Having a place to go to shout praise for a place that was so great (or bad) you wanted to tell others? -- but you let bad reviews go unfiltered all the time and refuse to take them down.
YELP: It's important to note that the filter affects both positive and negative reviews. It sometimes affects more positive reviews simply because Yelp users write more positive reviews in the first place.
WIB: If you are going to use an algorithm to remove review shouldn't you at least base it on the content itself looking for certain words, repetitive phrases, or even patterns among the ratings by a particular poster?
YELP: The review filter software looks at a wide range of data associated with every review, however, we don't disclose exactly how it works because this would allow for people to game the system. So while it may be tough to decipher how the filter works, I can tell you that the rules are the same for every business and every review.
WIB: I sent my daughter back to BUSINESS NAME'S spring camp last week and they had allowed another little girl with type 1 diabetes attend camp as well. I decided to check Yelp again. I was appalled to see the unfair nasty review still there and that mine was never even considered and would like to help my readers (small business owners) gain a better understanding about Yelp's filters.
YELP: I noticed that BUSINESS NAME has not unlocked their business listing, so feel free to pass along the link to our free tools if you think that would be helpful for them. The tools allow them to enter information about their business, publicly or private respond to reviews and upload photos, among other things.
WIB: Why are negative comments acceptable without filtration but positives ones are not?
YELP: Again, it's important to note that the filter affects both positive and negative reviews. It sometimes affects more positive reviews simply because Yelp users write more positive reviews in the first place.
WIB: What can posters do to ensure their posts will not be rejected by the autofilter?
YELP: Yelp has always been a community review site, not a drive-by review site. We encourage users to post a real photo, use their real name and continue to be active on the site.
WIB: What can business owners do to protect themselves against serial "nasty" posters?
YELP: As I mentioned above, Yelp offers business owners a FREE suite of tools which allows them to join the conversations that are happening about them online (including publicly or privately responding to online reviews). We have some great tips for how business owners can respond to online feedback on our blog here.
About Those Free Business Tools...
It is important to note that among the free tools Yelp suggested I encourage our barn to take advantage of included Yelp Deals, and it suddenly began to make sense to me. Yelp is a business and, like many big businesses, has positioned its "services" in such a way as to profit their own coffers, which may come at the expense of other business owners.
Yelp tells you not to offer discounts or coupons for positive reviews, or, as thanks for positive reviews, nor are you even permitted to ask your customers in any way to post reviews. Do it, and get caught and you could be in trouble with Yelp who will begin filtering all your positive reviews or publicly note on your business profile that you are suspected of attempting to game Yelp. But you can promote your business through Yelp -- but it will cost you: "Yelp Deals are a great way to promote your business to new customers on Yelp. You offer an attractive discount (e.g., $10 for $20), and a Yelp user can buy a voucher for that discount right on Yelp."
In other words, you bear the cost of the discount and on top of that another percent of that discount a second time when Yelp collects. Yelp also allows you to sell gift certificates -- but again, it will cost you: "Gift certificates are just what they sound like: an opportunity for new or existing customers to give full-price gift certificates to friends and family at your business. You choose the price points you want to offer (from $25 to $500), and the buyer sends a gift certificate in one of those amounts."
According to Yelp's website fees for coupons and discounts are fairly hefty, ".... Yelp collects payment from the purchaser, retains a share of the purchase (30% for Deals, 10% for gift certificates), and pays the business owner the remainder on a monthly basis."
In other words, if you offer a $20 discount, your business "eats" all of that $20 in discounts when the customer uses their voucher, but you do not even get the $20 collected when they buy the voucher, Yelp takes their cut first. A $20 discount could actually cost your business anywhere from $22 up to $26.
Although one lawsuit against Yelp has already been dismissed with prejudice, it seems only a matter of time before more accusations of unfair business practices could land them in court again.