It’s not news to savvy users of the Web that you can’t believe everything you read online. And that’s doubly true when it comes to user-generated reviews. All too many businesses pay others to write rave reviews in hopes of enticing new customers, and some even write maliciously bad reviews of a competitor’s business.
There’s not much anyone can do to stop the latest flavor of fraud, but I’m glad to report that Yelp is finally taking serious measures to crack down on businesses that plant glowing reviews.
As of this week, businesses that get caught red handed will suffer the ignominy of having a red warning label placed across their Yelp listing. Here’s what it says:
“We caught someone red-handed trying to buy reviews for this business,” the red-bordered alert box says. “We weren’t fooled, but wanted you to know because buying reviews not only hurts consumers, but also honest businesses who play by the rules. Check out the evidence here.”
The alert will be removed from the business’s Yelp page after 90 days, unless evidence of ongoing efforts is discovered, Yelp vice president Eric Singley said in a blog post. “We think consumers have a right to know when someone is going to great lengths to mislead them.”
Yelp has already hung the badge of shame on nine sites, including a moving company, two repair shops and a company that organizes treasure hunts. One of them is a jewelry store in San Diego that has 91 reviews, nearly all sporting a five-star rating.
Policing Yelp is a gargantuan task. The company says users have posted some 31 million reviews since the company launched in 2004. Singley says Yelp uses a set of filters that catch many fake reviews before they’re posted. The company has started letting consumers know if a business has had a large number of reviews submitted from the same Internet Protocol (IP) address, a strong indication that the reviews are not legitimate.
As user-generated reviews on Yelp and other sites have become more influential, businesses have complained that the system is too easy to game. Travel website TripAdvisor already posts similar alerts on its site when it suspects fake reviews.
It appears that businesses looking for fake reviews actually advertise on sites like Craigslist to find people willing to do it – for a price. According to several published accounts, a Yelp employee posed as an elite reviewer (someone who has posted lots of reviews) and got the businesses to reveal themselves. The size of the promised payments varied widely, and so did the work required.
Some businesses asked as little as $5 to post a review the business had already written. Others offered to pay more to people willing to write the reviews themselves.
“This pretty much breaks every rule in the book, not to mention it’s just wrong to mislead consumers with fake reviews. To combat this, we’ve put on our detective hats, tracked down these rogue solicitations and are now giving you a heads up,” Singley said.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.