Businesses attempting to stuff the ballot box on Yelp with paid-for favorable reviews will feel the pain of full public disclosure and humiliation. In a blog last week, Yelp made it plain it intended to root out and destroy businesses that sought to buy positive scores.
Going forward, when Yelp catches a business that is faking reviews, it will flag its page with a “consumer alert” badge and with text
that says: “We caught someone redhanded trying to buy reviews...”
That could be devastating to any business, large or small. The reputational costs could be immense. “Absolutely, that threat will deter fakes,” said Michael Crosson, publisher of SocialMediopolis and a social media expert, in an interview.
Media coverage has treated this as a TKO with Yelp declared the winner.
Not so fast. Yes, Yelp is flamboyantly fighting back; but the strength of review cheaters cannot be underestimated. Bing Liu, a computer scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, states adamantly that as many as 30 percent of online reviews are fakes.
Keep this in mind: Yelp is fighting for its business future. If consumers turn off review sites -- believing they have been thoroughly gamed -- that is goodnight for Yelp.
Still, to many businesses, a positive Yelp review is perceived as gold and a negative as a death sentence. Desperation drives both sides in what is genuinely a primordial battle.
Yelp, for its part, has made plain it won’t die easily. It has flagged nine businesses that it found offering to pay for reviews on sites like Craigslist.
Cases in point include Bert Levi Family Jewelers in San Diego and Chicago spa Mirror Mirror.
Good as these bannings may be, Yelp is fighting back against a Hurricane Katrina-level flood with a bottle stopper and a couple bags of sand.
“Faking already is part of the culture at Yelp. The incentives to fake are greater than the disincentives of the potential consequences [of getting caught],” said Todd William, CEO of Reputation Rhino, a New York company that offers reputation management services to businesses. William is adamant that Reputation Rhino does not fake reviews, but he is equally certain that faking is epidemic with Yelp reviews.
If you’re an SMB, head over to Fiverr, where you will find that $5 will buy your pick of reviews for your business.
Yelp is busy tweaking its algorithm to detect posts bought on sites such as Fiverr -- a poster with a Bangalore IP address who is posting reviews of Miami restaurants is immediately suspect, for example -- but the damnable reality is that for every site blocked today, another will spring up, and IP-masking techniques are as old as the Internet.
Casey Armstrong, COO at Laguna Beach, Calif.-based brand management firm Leadmunk, is also pessimistic about the outcome of Yelp’s efforts, as he noted in an email to me:
This latest move by Yelp getting their hands dirty and actually displaying warnings will deter many businesses from using lazy, paid methods, but I think Yelp's efforts will go largely unseen by a majority of companies who might still engage with paid reviews, even if it's unknowingly by hiring 3rd party marketing firms who use these tactics.
He insisted: “People will think they won’t get caught so they will keep doing it.”
The techniques doubtless will gets slicker -- reviews will be purchased through intermediaries and maybe under false names. It will not be easy to tweak algorithms to detect and prevent fakery.
But there’s room for innovators to try and detect the fakes and challenge Yelp on its review turf. “Yelp,” said Crosson, “is an inch deep and a mile wide. It has credibility problems. There is room for a competitor who comes in and knocks them off.”
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— Robert McGarvey has been online and writing about the Internet for nearly 25 years.