5 Star Hypocrisy

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How Yelp censors its reviews to increase the site’s profit

Most believe Yelp needs no introduction. I believe Yelp needs a thorough investigation; I am certain there are things you as a Yelp user, and you as a business owner don’t know about this slick censorship machine. Please hang through the first two paragraphs; this isn’t just another bitch fest about how Yelpers only like to complain. This gets much more interesting than that. First Amendment kind of interesting, actually.

The beginning: some months back, our restaurant (as most sooner or later do) received that one really, really unfortunate review. In about a year and half, this was the one review worth arguing over – filled with lies about our restaurant, by a person who, together with their group, walked out on paying their beverage bill after asked to pay their contracted minimum food spend we apply in cases of groups over 12. When asked to pay this bill (which they agreed to paying by signing a contract days prior to their party), multiple members of this group proceeded to threaten us with bad reviews on Yelp. Of course. What else.

When this review appeared (the same night of this incident), we asked Yelp to remove this review; we had video footage of this group laughing and enjoying themselves through their meal. Independently, three members of our management checked on this group and were repeatedly told everything was “Great!”; until the bill came. So to claim everything was awful, without any explanation, seemed to us – well, untrue, inaccurate and a blatant lie. When Yelp responded they could care less what the truth was (“it appears to reflect the personal experience and opinions of the reviewer, we’ve decided to leave it intact”), we asked to have our account removed from Yelp. The response from Yelp was as follows: “…this kind of information is publicly available and its use is protected under the law. More importantly, we believe that the public benefits from sharing their experiences with local businesses.” (feedback@yelp.com).

See, this quote right here will be very key in the next few moments. So months go on and we notice our overall star review on Yelp is steadily dropping, now down to three stars. We worry, we debate, we continue to try our best and we watch our Yelp account attentively. Then one day, while unable to find a specific review by a regular guest of our restaurant, I noticed a pretty hard to see link on the very bottom of our review page, which said “Filtered Reviews”.

Filtered reviews? I clicked the link. What my screen quickly displayed was the longest list of 5 star reviews I’ve ever seen. As if Yelp didn’t already have a crappy reputation among restaurateurs, here is where it all went to shit.

We currently have a total of 82 reviews available to see on our public page; 82 reviews that average out to 3 star overall rating. In the “Filtered Section” however, you will find (well hidden) 49 reviews (37% of our total amount, in itself an alarming number) but wait – there’s more: out of the 49 reviews, 46 reviews are 5 star reviews. Yes, 93.875% of our filtered reviews are 5 star reviews. Filtered reviews are not automatically viewable by public (unless someone stumbles upon this link and clicks it). Furthermore, filtered reviews do NOT count towards your business’s overall star rating.

How do reviews get filtered, you ask? Ah, so did we. There are some very vague and mostly fluff filled, nondescript, non-specific and uncommitted explanations on the Yelp website as to what exactly gets reviews to be filtered (or not), but it won’t give you a clear idea at all. I emailed Lucy at the “Feedback” department, asking whether perhaps these reviews, too, wasn’t information Yelp believed “that the public benefit(ed) from sharing” or, alternatively, what made it not worth sharing (at this time still believing it’s some kind of a mistake). Nothing. So we emailed two more times and received no response.

So a poor young ad sales person Jon walked right into the lion’s cage when he called to ask for our business’s money. After a long line up of rehearsed clichés, brainwashed propaganda and sales crap recital (which actually included the mention of “freedom of speech”, yes, he dared), this is basically Yelp’s explanation how reviews get filtered and why: Yelp wants to provide what they refer to as “accurate information”. In order to do so, their determination of “credible sources” (quotation marks used because Jon actually used these terms), is based on the frequency of use one’s Yelp account. Not only how many reviews you’ve written; but how often you login into your account, use Yelp as search tool, etc. This is what makes you a credible source in Yelp’s eyes. I mean, this guy actually pulled a media argument: ”When you read the newspaper, don’t you want the most accurate data?” this is how delusional Yelp is about itself and its role. Need I remind anyone that Yelp is an opinion sharing platform and as such, accuracy, will always be polemic. I really hope Yelp knows they are not news reporting agency. Talk about an identity problem.

But back to you and I, the user and the used. Yelp’s filtering system (or regulatory, why not) blocks reviews of users that only used their account a few times, or one time. You have a favorite spot you truly care about and choose to overcome your dislike of public, anonymous chitchat just to help your local spot out by writing a legitimate, honest review? Don’t bother. Your experience is “of lesser value”. Wrote a few reviews but don’t use Yelp to search for places or log into your account for any other reason? Your opinion is dismissed as “inaccurate”. However, if you want to write fake reviews (which is what Yelp claims to prevent), whether positive or negative, as long as you do so often enough and occasionally read other maybe fake maybe not reviews while logged in, you are good to do so.

Let me translate here. As a Yelp account user, you only hold value to Yelp if you visit their site often enough to increase their traffic, which in return gives them statistics that help sell advertisements and allows the site to make money. Your ability to accurately depict an experience starts and ends with how much you do for Yelp – how you translate in terms of dollars. If you are a high frequency Yelp account user, your memory is better, your judgment is spot on, your ability to account events is cop-like, your senses are tuned up and your ability to express yourself is flawless. The value of your experience, your opinion and your freedom of speech is as good as your eyeballs on paid advertisements that Yelp can capitalize on. Rate that.

It’s not like this is the first time an organization acts for sole motivation (profit) and under the banner of higher principle (freedom of speech) claims well doing, nobility and contribution. It’s not the first time the very righteous cause has the most rotten foundation. It’s not the first time good people are fooled by massive moral fraud acting like Messiah.

We hope we helped you out here. We hope that next time you post a review, your disillusion won’t burden you, that you will no longer dream of maybe affecting a business by sharing a negative experience, warning your friends off, or in our case, sharing your positive encounter with your fellow citizens, so they may choose to experience place/food/event also. That would be genuinely silly and naïve. Because unless you can turn into something practically useful to Yelp, your review will most likely end up on the wrecking site of Filtered Reviews that no one ever reads. Oh, does it suck to know your own irrelevance? Why don’t you Yelp about it.

This is where Filtered Review have their home...small, unnoticeable "link" on the very bottom of the page.

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