Why Yelp Is Fighting Fake Reviews with Public Shaming

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Yelp fake reviewsIn its quest to keep its reviews free of bribery and bias, Yelp last week turned to a new weapon: public shaming. The company announced Thursday that businesses found attempting to buy positive reviews will have their pages branded with a consumer advisory informing readers of their chicanery.

The value of social review sites like Yelp (YELP) rests on the notion of the wisdom of crowds: Rather than relying on a single "expert" restaurant critic or hotel reviewer, you draw on the opinions of dozens or hundreds of regular folks who have patronized a given establishment. While there will inevitably be a few outliers on both ends of the spectrum, averaging the reviews should give you a pretty good sense of the place's quality.

But that only works if all the reviewers are honest and objective. If businesses are writing glowing reviews of themselves -- or paying others to do so -- it introduces bias into the system and undermines its credibility. That's why Yelp has taken steps in the past to keep its reviews clean, implementing a filter that removes questionable reviews from the calculation.

But last week's announcement takes that fight to a new level: If Yelp finds evidence that a restaurant, hotel or other establishment has attempted to pay for positive reviews, it will get slapped with the review site equivalent of the scarlet letter. The mark of shame will stay in place for 90 days (assuming Yelp receives no evidence of further review-buying), and will present users with evidence of the business's attempts to solicit positive reviews. Stephanie Ichinose, a spokeswoman for the company, says Yelp employees will investigate by responding to solicitations offering to pay for reviews -- essentially going undercover to catch businesses in the act.

A Growing Problem

While Yelp already had a filtering program in place, it's not hard to see why the company decided that more decisive action was needed to address the growing problem of fake reviews. A recent report by research firm Gartner estimated that by 2014, 10% to 15% of all social media reviews will be fake -- a number that includes paid Facebook Likes and Twitter follows. And just as importantly, consumer awareness of the issue is also on the rise, says Jenny Sussin, the report's author.

"I think that we've reached a critical mass of people that just distrust social review sites in general," she says. Yelp, in other words, needed to show concerned users that it was addressing the problem beyond its existing filters.

And those existing filters and quality control procedures -- at Yelp and other sites -- just aren't adequately equipped to detect every fake review. A Cornell University study assessing the fake review problem found that human test subjects performed poorly when asked to spot deceptive reviews, so simply having editors hunt for suspicious-looking raves isn't a reliable option.

Myle Ott, the paper's author, has worked to develop an algorithm capable of detecting deceptive reviews based on certain cues found in the text of the review -- as he explains, "When people are lying, it changes the way they use language." But he says that as far as he's aware, no company is currently deploying such an algorithm to police its reviews.

Circumstantial Evidence

Without such an algorithm, says Sussin, companies are left with systems that make use of clues outside the text of the review. For instance, she says, Yelp tends to filter out reviews from accounts that look like they were created for the sole purpose of reviewing that establishment.

"Yelp does a lot of things that I recommend consumers do," she says. "If you don't fill out your entire profile when you register, it automatically flags you." She adds that the more reviews you have under your account, the less likely you are to be filtered, as the system will view you as a member in good standing rather than as a suspected dummy account. (Yelp would not disclose the details of its filter, noting that doing so would allow people to more easily circumvent it.)

Another strategy is to determine the source of a review by tracking the commenter's IP address. If a company detects that reviews from multiple user accounts all originate from a single address, it suggests that someone has set up numerous dummy accounts from a single computer. In announcing its consumer rating program last week, Yelp also said it plans to start using IP address-tracking to make sure that one person isn't using multiple accounts to influence an establishment's rating.

But perhaps the most effective strategy is to simply confirm that the person writing the review has actually visited the establishment or purchased the product that he or she is reviewing. On Amazon.com (AMZN) for instance, reviewers who actually purchased a product through the site are tagged with the label "Amazon Verified Purchase" next to their review. Expedia (EXPE), meanwhile, verifies that people who review hotels booked their stays through the site.

But neither Yelp nor social travel reviewer TripAdvisor (TRIP) make restaurant reservations or book hotel stays -- they're purely review sites. That means anyone can claim to have visited a restaurant or spent a weekend in a hotel, and the sites have no way of confirming they're being truthful.

"In some sense, there's a cost to posting fake reviews -- a tangible cost, if you have to book a room," says Ott. "But since [Yelp and TripAdvisor] can't increase the cost by requiring people to book through them, this [consumer advisory] is raising the reputation cost." The hope is that the shame of having the red flag show up on a business's page will outweigh the half-star bump that it can get by paying for a bunch of glowing reviews. ­­

Indeed, TripAdvisor already has such a system in place -- on this hotel's page, for instance, an advisory warns: "TripAdvisor has grounds to investigate that individuals or entities associated with or having an interest in this property may have attempted to interfere with traveler reviews and/or the popularity index for this property."

False Accusations?

The danger with such a strategy is that innocent businesses could get caught up in the dragnet, and the last thing Yelp wants is to falsely accuse a business of bad practices. And now that Yelp's new system has been publicized, it's possible some businesses might attempt "false flag" operations, in which a restaurant proprietor attempts to frame a rival for soliciting reviews.

Ichinose says that all cases are extensively researched before a consumer advisory is posted, lessening the likelihood of a false accusation. And a spokesperson for TripAdvisor says that the advisories, which are found on "only a fraction of a percent of the hotels" on the site, are only used "in cases where there is firm evidence supporting suspicions of abuse."

Still, Sussin says that the program could backfire if there are cases of innocent businesses getting branded with Yelp's new scarlet letter.

"What if they get it wrong for one business?" she says, suggesting that other review sites will be watching to see how the program fares. "And if it's multiple local businesses who share a similar customer base, and Yelp develops a reputation for falsely flagging businesses, that could be a problem."



Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.



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23 Comments

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mark.tillis

I was looking at a user’s review and found these interesting tidbits:

http://www.yelp.com/user_details?userid=ytWum5-6TUKLZ1-IC5hA5Q

In her top review of Law Office of Theresa N, this Yelper, Lucy G states that she took 2 bribes to remove negative reviews and then took free services to post a 5-star review.

a). “She is the one who offered to help review them for free. Why? Because she wanted me to remove my negative review, which I did (and even changed it to a 5-star glowing review). Lucy G” Then she changed it back to negative.

b). “I had no intentions of coming back to redo my review yet again, but recently got burned with another business that also “BRIBED ME” into removing my negative review.”

In looking at Lucy G’s profile it appears that she also reviews businesses that she never visited. See owner comments.

So what reviews of Lucy G do you believe, the negative reviews or the positive reviews? This is why people do not trust Yelp. Even in a review where the writer says they were bribed to write a positive review or bribed with free services to remove negative reviews, Yelp allows them to continue using the service.

August 14 2013 at 12:11 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Josh

Yelp is out of control, and their practices continue to be geared towards advertising income. While searching for other review sites, I came across www.ratediary.com. They just launched but seem to have a good system. Only those who have eaten or been and purchased from a place of business are allowed to review via a unique voucher. They are rewarded for posting honest feedback, doesn't matter if it’s good or bad. That way the owner can get reliable feedback, and make changes as needed.

Check it out www.ratediary.com

February 19 2013 at 7:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
PuffPuff Pappagiorgi

I have been using Yelp since 2006 and have written about 125 reviews since then. I haven't had any problem with Yelp this entire time up until a week ago. I wrote a review about Reebok's company headquarters who I had called and were of no help. Long story short, it was very frustrating because my spouse had purchased a $115 pair of Zig Tech shoes that ripped after only being worn less than 20 times. And this is the second pair of Zig shoes that has ripped like that! Reebok refused to resolve the situation, so I posted a Yelp review detailing the experience and had 4 pictures of the Zig shoes showing how they were new and tearing. I had found out that many people with Zig shoes have the problem with tearing and they are a shoddy product. I sent the Yelp review to Reebok to let them know I didn't appreciate their shoddy products. A few days later, I received a Yelp message from someone named Kenny G with this message: "Are you sure you know how Yelp works after all of this time? We don't review COMPANIES on Yelp, we review LOCAL BUSINESSES. Therefore, you may not create a business listing for a company headquarters, only a local branch of the business that you actually walked into and had an experience in. So please delete your irrelevant Reebok review now so I don't have to have Yelp do it for you. Thank you."

I have no doubt that this was someone at Reebok HQ sending me this message. Either way, a few days later, I found my Yelp review for Reebok HQ had disappeared. Even though my review was legit since I had dealt directly with headquarters, I believe that someone at Reebok sent Yelp some sort of message to have my review removed, or perhaps even paid Yelp off. The cached version of my review is still on Google and there are still pictures of the shoes to prove how shoddy they are. Even if I lost out on money, I wanted to warn others thinking about purchasing the Zig shoes. After this experience, be cautious of anything you read on Yelp...chances are there are big companies paying Yelp off to save their reputation. Remember, Yelp has to make money somehow!

November 02 2012 at 7:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
sharisez

The trouble is Yelp is often dead wrong about who is posting fake reviews. I finally quit bothering to post there when I was told that the reason my reviews were often hidden was because of their policies to protect against fake reviews. They had absolutely no reason to think mine were fake, nor had they ever contacted me asking questions. My reviews covered multiple states and everything from restaurants to veternary services in my area. They ranged the gamut from 1 star to 5 star with no favoritism shown to anyone. I think what Yelp does is target the businesses that aren't paying for their services (yes, Yelp charges a tidy four figure and up yearly fee to 'join' although they accept reviews on non-clients as well as clients) in an attempt to funnel business to the clients that pay for membership by showing more good reviews for them and less for non-clients, and yes, they've screened some of my bad reviews as well. So, who's most guilty of cheating? Yelp.

October 24 2012 at 10:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Kenny

angie's list is probably the worst..... business pay someone to post for them and they get advestisement at a low cost...........

October 24 2012 at 9:01 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
ausfam123

What about the rival businesses that post false negative reviews of their competitors?

And then there's Yelp's refusal to allow a business that has unlocked their own listing from removing photos that others have posted on their listing.

Angie's List requires anyone who wants to post a review to pay a membership fee. This seems to eliminate a lot of the abuse and lend more credibility to the reviews.

October 24 2012 at 12:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ausfam123's comment
sharisez

I am not interested in paying a hefty yearly fee to Angie's List to see if there is a good Chinese reataurant in the city I happen to be in, and since AL is advertised ed as a place to check out contractors and home repair people, why would I even expect to find restaurant and hotel reviews ther?

October 24 2012 at 10:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mars

Seeing the posts by business owners on this thread, I agree that it is the responsibility of Yelp to err on the side of caution. Yelp has to accept that whatever system they implement to catch fake reviews will ALWAYS be imperfect, because not only is there the problem of verifying that an account holder is who they say they are; there is the problem of the business owner who has multiple friends who have Yelp accounts leave fake reviews on real accounts. We can stretch our imaginations to imagine another problem which would be the business owner who entices their customers to leave positive reviews on Yelp ("please leave a yelp review, come back to my business and I will provide you 50% off your next experience, etc."). On the flip side though, one can argue that the business owner who contacts a user who has left a negative review and offers them a free meal on the house to have the user remove or modify the review is the same as the owner who bribes the user to leave a positive review. I think Yelp has to focus on discovering the "dummy accounts", because there is less margin for error in this area than in the other. It is alarming to hear on this thread that Yelp has removed reviews from real account holders.

As for the functionality of Yelp on the user side, I have used it and it has been very reliable for me as a user. As a small business owner myself, I understand it can be very tough for business owners and it would be very frustrating to have real positive reviews removed or filtered, and it would be frustrating to have negative reviews bring your ratings down only due to the fact that not many people in your area have left reviews for your establishment. No site will be perfect, but perhaps they need to review and modify their filtering practices.

As a user though it has been very reliable for me. Yelp just needs to accept there will be some small degree of fake reviews and take these as outliers. Overall the site is very reliable and the star ratings are almost always correct.

October 24 2012 at 11:16 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mars

Fake reviews are tough to combat for any business. Amazon and eBay have the same problem, I know because I use both Amazon, eBay and Yelp daily. I think that requiring people to verify their Yelp accounts would be a more effective way of combating fake reviews. Define Verify:
1) requiring a phone number. You provide a phone number while registering on Yelp, they provide you with an online code. You get an automated call from Yelp and have to enter the code. Your Phone # is now verified.
2) Ideally (for Yelp, not for users) require a checking account or license number since this info is hard to fake
One thing that is incorrect in the article is that Yelp is "purely a review site". On their site, Yelp allows users to make reservations (powered by OpenTable), I have been using it these past weeks and it works fine. However, it is true that Yelp does not require you to book through Yelp in order to write a review, so in theory anyone can post a review without real "proof" of having been to the establishment. But in my opinion there are many reasons why requiring people to book through the site in order to leave a review would not eliminate or reduce the number of DUMMY accounts registered. In other words, requiring people to book through Yelp would not deter business owners from creating dummy accounts to leave positive reviews.

If a business owner is going through the trouble of creating a dummy account in the first place, how hard is it to take one more step by "booking a reservation" using their dummy account? It takes 20 seconds.

It would not deter business owners, however, it would deter a number of users who don't want to be forced to book through Yelp due to a number of possible reasons. This policy would then increase the % of overall fake reviews.
---- 1) Other reservation sites offer better rewards programs. Opentable, for example, provides diners with
"dining point" which users can cash in for a free meal, etc.
2) Consumer behavior_not used to using Yelp to book so continues to use other method, or more
convenient to call in the reservation than to go online to book it, or other reasons?

I think Yelp has it right in using other methods to combat fake reviews, BUT should only punish businesses if there is hard evidence or extremely suspicious patterns (factors like IP address, number of total reviews, number of friends, full profile info, etc.) to make their decisions. For example, if a business receives multiple reviews from the same IP address and continues to receive multiple reviews from the same IP address then this should flag a Yelp representative, and then if the overall number of reviews for these accounts are low (Person has left less than 5 reviews for example, which by itself isn't suspicious, but if all of a sudden 5-10 reviews show up from people who all have left less than 5 total reviews), then there is a reason for further investigation, a Yelp rep should investigate,possibly punish

October 24 2012 at 10:54 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Mars's comment
sharisez

Great idea, ask people for the kind of info stalkers and ID thieves are interested in. That should put Yelp out of business in no time.

October 24 2012 at 10:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
cabo79

Most of these sites where people don't actually buy something are usless for deciding where to stay, what to buy, or where to eat.

October 24 2012 at 10:00 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mikerat42

YELP's filters are b/s.. I wrote a legitimate review of a restarant and it was taken down. ( too effusive I guess)

October 24 2012 at 9:31 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply