Anyone who uses Yelp on a frequent basis, or relies on positive reviews to bolster their online reputation is likely familiar with the controversies surrounding fake Yelp reviews.
The two most relevant reasons are:
- When people or businesses pay someone to write positive reviews for their own establishments or even pressure their friends or customers to write positive reviews about them.
- Or to write negative reviews against YOUR Company to either benefit their own business or express a vendetta such as a disgruntled ex-employee.
These issues are something Yelp has constantly been working to combat for years and are something customers have to consider every time they read an online review. Fake reviews have become such a problem that combating them has become a major part of Yelp’s operation, as well as, local business owners and marketers.
Four ways Yelp has combated this fake yelp review epidemic
1) Yelp’s Consumer Alerts
Back in 2012, Yelp launched an initiative for handling fake reviews with “Consumer Alerts.” Users will see what Yelpers refer to as a “badge of shame” warning when visiting pages for businesses that have paid money for fake positive reviews. Consumers can consider this information when deciding whether to patronize an establishment.
When they catch a business paying for fake reviews, Yelp doesn’t exclude them from their service, but posts a Consumer Alert warning on their listing for a period of three months. This serves both as a form of protection for consumers and as a deterrent to businesses that would choose to engage in such practices. How well this works, as a deterrent, is not easily gauged. Yelp continues to announce new Consumer Alerts on a regular basis.
2) Yelp Sting Operations
In addition to a proprietary security algorithm that hunts down fake reviews, Yelp uses sting operations to catch offenders. YELP founder and CEO, Jeremy Stoppelman was quoted by The Telegraph as saying "The way we have decided to combat that is we have a team that is dedicated to running sting operations. So we pose as review writers who are interested in selling reviews to whoever would like to buy them. It has been incredibly successful in that we have been able to catch businesses red handed."
These sting operations have been conducted in both the U.S. and Europe.
3) Yelp Takes Legal Action
As paid reviews have continued to occur well after the Consumer Alert system was launched, Yelp has used the law to pursue offenders that pay for reviews. In 2013, for instance, Yelp brought suit against BuyYelpReview.com for selling fake reviews and has been shutting down similar offenders ever since, including sites that pay their own employees to pose as satisfied clients, such as was the case when Yelp brought suit against McMillan Law Group in San Diego.
4) Yelp’s “Not Recommended” Filters
Yelp constantly updates their algorithm, and it’s part of this algorithm’s job to filter out suspicious reviews and by doing so they are not considered in Yelp’s star rating system and are hidden under a link towards the bottom of the business’s page.
There are lots of reasons why a review might not be recommended. For example…
- A less established user or a brand new account may have posted the review.
- Maybe it seemed like an unhelpful rant or rave.
- Reviews that are originating from the same computer, device, Internet provided or IP address but are distributed from several different Yelp accounts.
- Some are completely biased, like the ones written by a friend, family member or employee of the business owner.
- Many are real reviews from real customers who Yelp’s algorithm just doesn’t know much about and therefore can't recommend. Whether it’s because it was their first review, or they don’t have a profile picture when cameras are standard on phones today, or they left a lot of fields empty in their about section.
- Maybe it was due to location. A real reviewer wouldn’t be able to write a review about a bar in Chicago, IL and then write a review about a restaurant in Oakland, CA an hour later. It would be physically impossible due to the distance between these locations.
It's also important to note that because Yelp’s recommendation software is automated, the Yelp Support team cannot manually override the software to recommend or not recommend a specific review.
How Many Fake Yelp Reviews Go Uncaught?
Despite Yelp’s efforts, a significant percentage of business reviews are found to be fake. Four years ago, Harvard’s Business School conducted a study of the Boston Metropolitan Area and determined that as many at 16% of Yelp restaurant reviews were fake. This took into account 316,415 reviews of 3,625 Boston restaurants.
At the time, Yelp’s Director of Public Policy, Luther Lowe, stated that the 16% figure may be misleading as “Harvard Business School used reviews Yelp identified as suspicious (not “fake”) to run its analysis. 25% suppressed, not 16%.”
Shortly after the Harvard Study, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced on his blog the results of “Operation Clean Turf,” “a year-long undercover investigation into the reputation management industry, the manipulation of consumer-review websites, and the practice of astroturfing, found that companies had flooded the Internet with fake consumer reviews on websites such as Yelp, Google Local, and CitySearch.”
This operation led to 19 companies that “had agreed to cease their practice of writing fake online reviews for businesses and to pay more than $350,000 in penalties.” Furthermore, Schneiderman cited research-by-research firm Gartner that projected by “2014, between 10% and 15% of social media reviews will be fake."
Schneiderman’s blog goes on to state “the statistic is slightly lower than the Harvard study's, but the data on fraudulent restaurant reviews makes it clear: Yelp still has a lot of work to do.”
What Can Your Company Do To Combat Fake Yelp Reviews?
As tempting as paid reviews can be for a business seeking to bolster their online reputation, it’s too risky to try to be among the slim 15% of companies that go uncaught.
Instead, focus on…
- Clear and honest communication with your customers and do all that you can to EARN their five-star reviews.
- Contact the reviewer, preferably offline, and fix the situation like a professional adult and in the most sincere way. Hopefully, they will take it down themselves.
- Know Yelp’s Terms of Service. If a review violates those term, click the red flag and select the term that this review violated. Yelp doesn’t allow racism, promotional language, threats, full names of employees, or foul language.
- Reply if all else fails, but know when to do this and when not to as this might make things spiral out of control. Stay away from the unappeasable, whiners, & people looking for free stuff.
- Encourage others to click the Helpful and Not Helpful links next to each review, but not all at once.
- Legal action. This most likely won’t help though unless you have a smoking gun. If you have proof that someone or a group of people are conspiring against you &/or your business, or are asking for compensation to remove, you may be able to take legal action to seek damages and to get the review(s) successfully taken down.
- Supplement your reputation management efforts by employing the experts in brand management: Tag Marketing, LLC!
Tag Marketing can help you manage this dynamic challenge of fake Yelp reviews and repair your poor online reputation with proven strategies. We offer businesses like yours the experience and tools needed to help maintain & improve your social media presence, optimize your visibility in local search, catch issues before they go viral online, and manage your reputation across multiple channels. Our expertise will lead you to better customer relations, increased business and greater success.
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