Are Yelp Online Reviews Reliable?
When researching a new product or service, many of us begin our search with Google. Invariably those searches lead us to online reviews of businesses that provide the product or service we’re interested in. For a lot of us, this is how we make our final decision as to what product to purchase or what business to give our hard earned money to. We use online reviews to decide on small things such as whether to try out a new restaurant and large things like which contractor to hire for a new roof. In the last couple years, I have begun avoiding the online reviews altogether and making my decisions based solely on referrals from people I know who have needed similar services. When I needed my central AC fixed, I didn’t go to Yelp or Angies List; I went to the HVAC contractors at my work and said, “hey do you know anybody good who does residential work?” They hooked me up with an awesome dude, so awesome that not only did he become the guy I call if I have a heating or AC problem, he’s also become a good friend to drink beer with, talk about business strategy, and get business referrals from each other.
So why did I start avoiding online reviews in the first place? As it turns out, people are much more likely to complain about bad service than they are to gloat about good service. When I was a manager in the grocery industry, we were taught that 90% of customers who have a bad experience at your store will tell someone about it but only 10% of customers who have a good experience at your store will do the same thing. People love to complain and if they can complain about your business without actually facing any type of scrutiny from your business to qualify their complaint as legitimate, they’re even more like to do so. That’s where the online reviews come in to play – it’s too easy to be mean. Since it’s basically anonymous (you just need an email address to create a review account on most sites) people will say things on the internet that they would never say to someone’s face. Go to any online review site and look to see how many bad restaurant reviews are out there and you’ll find that although people write these scathing reviews about the service, many of them never said anything to the manager or their server at the time to give them a chance to resolve their complaint.
The bottom line is that research can be done by anyone without having to jump to online reviews. These things have only been around for 10-15 years so it’s not like we didn’t know how to find good businesses before that.
Review Manipulation: Fraudulent Reviews & Astroturfing
According to a report from Harvard Business School, 20% of the reviews posted on Yelp are fake. In general, the belief is that as many as 15% of all online reviews are fakes. So where do the fake reviews come from?
In most cases, fake reviews appear to come from people who are paid or otherwise ‘encouraged’ to post positive reviews at the request of the business being reviewed. Otherwise knows as astroturfing, the practice involves using fake efforts to affect the reputation of a company or business. While some of the reviewers are actual customers, many others are professionals who just take money in exchange for posting positive reviews for businesses. Some businesses have been known to have their own employees posting fake reviews about themselves under fictitious names and accounts. Companies view this type of activity as just another way of advertising themselves, the problem is that in many cases it’s also illegal.
A more malicious activity occurs when companies post fake reviews in order to trash the reputations of their competitors. I know a local business owner who had a horrible review posted about his company by someone who he never even heard of before – the person was never his customer and they didn’t even live in the area. Needless to say, this type of activity is also illegal but very prevalent on the web.
Review Manipulation: Yelp’s Mob Shakedown
In my opinion, the most menacing of all of the issues with online reviews is the review site’s ability to filter reviews based their opinions of what is real and what is fake. Sites like Amazon seem to post every review regardless of how it’s written and show them in chronological order. You can choose to sort them however you like, but the default view for a product or service is in chronological order. I like this approach because it allows me, the reader, to make my own choices as to which reviews I find credible or not. It also means that Amazon is taking a neutral approach, not taking sides, and isn’t that what a credible review source is supposed to do?
On the other side of that coin are review sites like Yelp which typically filter out 20% or more of submitted reviews so that readers never even see them. Although Yelp claims that they do this filtering based on the best interest of the customer, the filtering rules they use are kept secret and very little information is given to someone who submits a review that gets filtered out. About 2 years ago before I had my computer business I created an account on Yelp and posted 8 reviews of different businesses over a 2 month time period. Half of those reviews were bad, and half of them were very good – they were all legitimate reviews of places that I really went to and purchased goods or services from. Of the 4 good reviews that I wrote, all of them were filtered out and eventually removed by Yelp with no explanation. Of the 4 bad reviews, initially all 4 of them showed up for those businesses but after about a month 1 of them was filtered out and removed. Interestingly enough, the 1 negative review that was filtered out just so happened to be for a business that pays for Yelp advertising. It seems to me awfully coincidental that the 1 good review that stuck on Yelp was for a business who pays them for advertising. It’s just fishy…
Back in 2012 industry analyst and Forbes contributor, Jim Handy, wrote about his experience with Yelp and how his glowing reviews of a business where removed from Yelp with no explanation or notification as to why. He also described how his wife, a Realtor, called Yelp after a positive review about her was removed: “They hinted that if I advertised on Yelp this may not have occurred”. Even more disturbing are reports from business owners who claim that existing positive reviews are removed after they decline Yelp’s sales pitch to purchase advertising through them. For years, Yelp has been the target of class action lawsuits charging extortion though for the time being, they have managed to avoid prosecution. Just this past March, a Los Angeles Times article published the story of a merchant who was told by Yelp that “for a fee, troubling ads on the site can be made to go away.” If you choose to read just 1 link in this blog post, pick that one. It’s also pretty clear that Yelp has no shortage of haters in the business world, just take a short click over to yelp-sucks.com to read story after story of business owners who feel they’ve been wronged by Yelp.
After I post this blog, I’m almost expecting to see my own CGS Computers showing up on Yelp with negative reviews from customers I never had. I actually think it’d be quite hilarious considering every customer I have is a personal friend.
If You Still Insist on Using Yelp…
I’m not sure how someone could be in a position where they have no other options, but maybe you’ve found yourself with no alternative other than to go to Yelp looking for information about a business. My recommendation is to not only read the reviews as they show up, but down near the bottom you’ll find a link that is written in very light gray that says, “other reviews that are not currently recommended”. Look at those as well because those are the reviews that Yelp has filtered out of the business’ star rating and hidden. I’ve looked at many of those and it seems that almost always it’s the positive ones that end up here and they seem more realistic to me than the recommended ones.
Do you have an online review story you’d like to share? I’d be very interested in hearing about your experience. Comment below to share.