Inside Yelp’s Wasp Nest: When Social Networking Meets Extortion

Inside Yelp’s Wasp Nest: When Social Networking Meets Extortion image EvilYelpInside Yelp’s Wasp Nest: When Social Networking Meets Extortion

If you have received a call like this one, you are likely a victim of extortion: “Hi, this is Steve calling from Yelp. You have had 400 hits on your website this month and although much of the response has been positive, you can do much better. I see there that your business has some bad reviews. Let me take care of those for you”.

This sales pitch has the perfect recipe for a business transaction: a positive tone is established, followed by creating a sense of urgency only before the rep extorts the business owner through the disguise of selling paid advertising or paying for an upgraded account.

Why Care About Yelp?

Go ahead and Google any professional service within a city location and see what comes up on the first page of the search engines. For example if you Google “dry cleaners in Seattle”, the first five results originate from Yelp. Link number one is a specific business that clearly paid a great deal of money to be at the top, the second link opens to a cluster of businesses that paid to be on this indexed feature page and the remaining links open to the dry cleaning section of Yelp’s Seattle directory. What this means is that Yelp gets lots of clicks, and the businesses with the highest ratings get more visitors and therefore more business.

Rankings and Hogwash

But how fair is the rating system? If you are a business owner you will undoubtedly notice that many good reviews are filtered out, yet negative ones stick at the top. According to Yelp’s own FAQ page they justify their ranking system by using “filtering software to determine which reviews and tips should be filtered on any given day” and “the software looks at a wide range of data associated with every review and tip”. But Yelp provides no information on algorithms or any concrete facts-based methodology used to define and justify this “data’ they speak of.

Yelp’s FAQ page also claims “businesses cannot pay for favorable treatment”. However, in interviewing the owner of restaurant in San Diego’s Hillcrest neighborhood (who wished to remain anonymous for fear that Yelp would make his online reputation even worse), he stated that he gets at least 3 calls per month from Yelp stating that by purchasing some additional services, the reviews can be re-arranged to provide a more favorable rating of his business.

The Proof is in the Yelping

So how do you know Yelp is extorting you? It is difficult to accuse Yelp of extorting businesses unless you know what to look for when analyzing your reviews and the profiled reviewers who posted them. The business owner I interviewed noticed that after Yelp started persistently calling him, some good reviews that were once at the top filtered into non-existence only to be replaced with negative ones. Here are some things you can do to determine if you are being bamboozled by Yelp: Take weekly screen shots of your Yelp reviews showing the order in which your reviews appear. Categorize and store these images in a folder and after 8 weeks check to see if any major change has suddenly occurred, such as positive reviews dropping off.

Check the profiles of those who gave you bad reviews. If these reviewers have zero friends or no previous reviews, or if they have a limited number of reviews or friends yet their negative reviews of your business trumps positive ones left by yelpers with a rich history of consistent activity, you have the right to feel suspicious. But after analyzing your ranking trends, it will be apparent that yelp’s supposed software will have ultimately lowered your star rating and around the same time you will likely get a phone call from Yelp headquarters in which they offer to put out the very fire they set.

McCarthyism?

We all know that one tactic for escaping the rays of a negative spotlight is to re-direct the wrongdoing on others. Blog Fox Media reports that Yelp is offending members of its Elite community by sending them harassing letters accusing them of writing fake reviews for money, yet Yelp refuses to disclose what specific reviews are being held in suspect. So why doesn’t Yelp let its members know which reviews are being investigated? Because most people are capable of putting two and two together; if Yelp is indeed rearranging reviews to alter a company’s star rating in order to extort that business, but an Elite member writes a positive review that puts a damper on their attempt to “create” a qualified customer to extort, Yelp will be forced to change its tactics.

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