from the extortion2.1 dept
Over the past few years, the review site Yelp has been no stranger to controversies regarding its treatment of comments and criticisms aimed at local businesses. Negative reviews on Yelp have spurred various lawsuits, accusing Yelp of unfair business practices that have been called “Extortion 2.0” — referring to the accusation that Yelp salespeople put pressure on companies to pay up for better ratings to appear more prominently on Yelp (and to remove the bad reviews that coincidentally seem to appear on the site when these salespeople allegedly suggest that better ratings could be bought).
In response, Yelp has explained (over and over again) that its algorithms are optimized to display the most “trustworthy” reviews of local businesses — in a way that’s completely unrelated to its sales efforts. Trying to put a friendly wrapping around its umpteenth explanation, Yelp has even created a cartoon to help educate everyone on its methods:
However, no matter how simply these explanations are conveyed, they have not been particularly convincing to small businesses who feel punished by bad reviews and see Yelp’s services as a veiled threat to their livelihood. So Yelp has taken another step by announcing some changes to its services to avoid further confusion:
Businesses can no longer buy a “Favorite Review” like they could before — so that there’s no confusion over businesses being able to influence reviews by paying Yelp. This sounds like a pretty big step towards making it clear that companies can’t just buy better reviews, but what does this mean for companies that formerly bought “Favorite Reviews?” Those companies are being penalized with the unexpected removal of this service, and there’s still no guarantee that ratings can’t be manipulated by cunning business owners or competitors. Though, the conspiracy theorists may never actually be satisfied on this point, and gaming online rating systems will likely always be a nagging concern. Yelp is still keeping its review filtering algorithms a secret, but it will now display reviews that have been removed by its automated filters in an effort to allow users to see a bit of the reviews that Yelp deems suspicious or untrustworthy. However, Yelp is not exactly highlighting these filtered-out reviews — just making them available to be viewed in case anyone is curious to see what kind of reviews are tossed out on a regular basis. Yelp is adding video ads as a service for businesses — presumably to offset the loss of its “Favorite Review” feature. Yelp says it’s created a Small Business Advisory Council for companies to give feedback to Yelp management. This is an interesting development, but it’s not exactly easy to find out more information on how this council works. Granted, it was just announced, but its announcement seems to lack a bit of commitment when there aren’t any obvious links about it on yelp.com (yet?).
Yelp proudly states that it’s increasing transparency with these changes, allowing businesses and users to peek into what its algorithms are filtering out behind the scenes. But it’s not clear that anyone really asked for that feature — and getting that look at the filtered reviews isn’t going to ease the concerns that Yelp’s algorithms are inherently weighted against small businesses who don’t pay up for advertising space on Yelp.
The more significant change seems to be that Yelp is shifting away from a “Pay for Placement” business model with its reviews. Replacing its “Favorite Reviews” with video ads seems a bit odd, though — but apparently video ads were a top request from merchants. So at least Yelp is listening to its customers and responding — and if Yelp really wants to increase transparency, maybe we’ll see how Yelp actually handles feedback someday. But since Yelp doesn’t allow commenting on its own blog, chime in here and tell us what you think Yelp is doing wrong or right with its approach.