New York’s attorney general last week announced steps to reduce deceptive reviews on Yelp, where online companies wrote phony reviews for businesses in exchange for payments.
But that’s not the only reason why you need to be skeptical of what you read on the site. Yelp itself manipulates reviews. It changes the order in which they are displayed, moving some to a “filtered” section. (To access these reviews, you need to scroll down just beyond the last review and click on the small grayed-out word “Filtered” in parentheses.)
Unlike Amazon, which posts all reviews in chronological order, Yelp will often show older reviews first, some as many as three or four years old. Taken by itself, that’s misleading because what’s most important is a business’ current reputation, not what it was years ago.
Yelp faces its own lawsuits and accusations of extortion, because of how it displays businesses’ reviews, with charges that ad placement is dependent upon having an advertising relationship. There are thousands of online postings from businesses that provide details of being treated unfairly.
Just the fact that Yelp removes and reorders some reviews, raises questions of bias. Why should a business have nearly all of its negative reviews on the front page and all of the positive reviews in the filtered section?
I’ve also experienced another strange behavior. When I view a business on Yelp that I have reviewed, my review is often at the top of the page. But if I view the same page from another computer, my review appears elsewhere, sometimes even in the filtered section.
Now Yelp’s reach has come to San Diego with its own lawsuit against the San Diego bankruptcy law firm, The McMillan Law Group. The firm was accused of having employees pose as clients and posting positive reviews. Julian McMillan, the law firm’s owner, says the lawsuit is retaliatory because he won a recent lawsuit against Yelp.
Perhaps that retaliation is continuing. Just today new negative reviews were posted by one individual, JP, for McMillan’s law firm along with two other attorneys, a barber shop and hair removal business. JP must have had a busy day.
After the story broke, McMillan began receiving a stream of unsolicited emails from other businesses relating their own experiences with Yelp. With the permission of the businesses, he has forwarded these emails to me.
I’ve been reviewing them, and in some cases, speaking with a few of the business owners.
The complaints fall into three categories:
• Manipulating the reviews to remove favorable ones or relegate them to a filtered area that’s difficult to find and access, so that most users of Yelp will not see them. (As a frequent Yelp user even I was unaware of this area).
• Refusing to remove reviews that a business owner claims are malicious, such as those posted by someone who has never been a customer, or by a competitor.
• Salespeople promising to alter which ratings are displayed and in what order, if the business enters into an advertising relationship with Yelp.
Yelp has always refused to explain their methodology for displaying the reviews, attributing it to their proprietary computer algorithms that are always evolving.
In some of the sites of those businesses that have complained, I’ve found that the filtered area displays a much higher proportion of positive reviews than those shown on the front page.
Below are excerpts from some of the emails that McMillan received representing about half of those from the first wave he sent on.
• A San Jose computer repair company:
“They were giving me the hard sell and told me that advertising with them would help my Yelp ratings. They wanted $500.00 a month for this. When I refused, they started removing (filtering) all of my 5 star reviews. And when fake 1 star reviews were posted by my competitors, Yelp refused to remove them even though the reviews clearly violated their terms of service. I just want my hard earned 5 star reviews returned to me and the fake reviews removed.”
• A Washington state maid service:
“I have recently received (reviews from a) few people that are not my customers and Yelp refused to removed it.”
• A California longevity medical company:
“We had a couple (of) negative reviews on Yelp and all of our 5 star reviews were filtered. The day Yelp called me to 'advertise,' all my negative reviews were filtered, and all positive reviews were showing. After I declined their offer, they again filtered all my positive reviews but denied that my refusal to advertise had anything to do with it. I've got screenshots and dates of all of it, just in case we ever felt inspired to help someone out.”
• An Atlanta appliance repair company:
“I have repeatedly refused to advertise with Yelp and as a result they keep filtering my positive reviews and only post negative reviews about my company.”
• A Los Angeles area photography studio:
“I have a reputable photography studio and have been in business for 25 years. I have seen at least 30 reviews on yelp from my clients. …the only review that they will show is the ONLY bad review and it is the oldest (over two years ago) from someone that says he was a client and unhappy (but won't answer my reply or give me a chance to fix it if we did in fact do something wrong), and even mentions and refers one of my competitors (he could be in cahoots with my competitor).
“Any and all good reviews I get from legitimate clients get filtered and no one can see them without knowing how to navigate and dig through their website.
“I have two separate legitimate clients that were unhappy about something that happened with my business, posted on Yelp and it went right on the front page for a month or two. I contacted both of them (and) resolved the issue to the point that they were thrilled with the outcome and changed their review to a positive one, and within 48 hours Yelp buried both of them in their filter.
• A Los Angeles building maintenance company:
“Yelp has hurt our 32-year-old business; we have 1,000 satisfied accounts, 60 satisfied crews that do cleaning and 20 office employees that love their job. We still have our first account since 1981.
“Occasionally, we have disgruntled customers that can’t pay their bills or want us to do different services we are not equipped for. Sometimes they want to get out of their contract or our competitors also will give us negative comments that are not true. There are two sides to every story. The majority of comments are negative in Yelp. This is not the American way. You are not guilty before proven innocent. …
“We had many potential accounts that didn’t go with us because they referred to Yelp, and believed the lies told about us. … We had an account with a Beverly Hills courier that we serviced since 1984. They gave us a great review. ... Yelp didn’t put the review on our Yelp page.”
I asked Yelp to comment on all of the major points. Rachel Walker, a Yelp PR specialist emailed the following response. “There has never been any amount of money you can pay Yelp to manipulate reviews. Period.
“Yelp has an automated review filter in place to protect both consumers and business owners from fake and biased reviews. As a result, we end up displaying about 75 percent of the content, because we find that content to be the most useful and reliable. The only time Yelp removes a review is if it is deemed in violation of our Terms of Service or Content Guidelines.”
She added: “The default sort of reviews on any business page is Yelp Sort, which is determined by recency, user voting and other review quality factors, but people can easily opt to sort by date, rating and other factors on every business listing."
Although I cannot evaluate the individual complaints and stories that these businesses tell without much more investigation, it is very clear to me that something is rotten here. Yelp’s behavior seems to fall somewhere between a company trying to monetize its reviews in a clumsy way and one that fails to follow basic ethical principles of fairness. It’s walking a fine line because if businesses are able to prove the latter, which I expect will eventually happen, Yelp’s own reputation will drop to one star.
Related article: Local law firm sued by Yelp
Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," published by Financial Times Press. Send comments to email@example.com. Comments may be published online or as Letters to the Editor.