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User reviews will always present challenges until Yelp and its peers can figure out a way to get people to say nice things as often as they say not-nice things.
You’ve realised it’s finally time to get rid of that dodgy mullet and you decide to do a quick online search for a local hairdresser. After scanning the reviews, you pick one which sounds great and dash off for a quick cut and dye, only to discover that the stylist has two left hands and seems awfully unsure about how to remove your foils.
We’ve all become used to trusting the web as a source of local knowledge, but most websites are plagued by fake reviews that are designed to artificially inflate the ratings of specific businesses. These reviews could be written by friends and associates of the business owner, or even people who are paid to write positive reviews in order to attract more customers.
In many cases it is obvious from reading a fake review that something is amiss, but reviewers are becoming increasingly canny about writing recommendations that sound like the real deal, and fool people into thinking that the business in question is a true local treasure.
Some people might accept this as one of the perils of using the Internet, but Jeremy Stoppelman, chief executive of search and review site Yelp, is unwilling to tolerate attempts to mislead his customers.
“Maintaining the trust of the consumer is critical to our business. We live and breathe only one thing, which is wanting to connect consumers with great local businesses, and I don’t feel we can do that if we don’t have effective ways to prevent gaming of the system,” he told The Telegraph.
Yelp’s first line of defense is its review filter, which sifts through the more than 47 million reviews that have been submitted to the site in order to identify and recommend the most useful and reliable ones. Yelp does not divulge details of how its algorithm works, but essentially it analyses a wide range of signals to decide whether or not a review is fake.
Stoppelman explained that – as in the case of Google’s ranking algorithm – people are constantly trying to work out how the software works in order to beat the system, but by keeping the algorithm secret, Yelp manages to stay a step ahead of the fraudsters.
“There is this cat and mouse game that plays out over time where our team comes up with new and interesting ideas to identify content that we shouldn’t recommend, and over time people are constantly probing that, trying to figure out how can they get around that and get a better reputation on Yelp,” he said.
However, Yelp does not rely on software alone. Stoppelman explained that in recent years, the company has decided to take a more proactive approach to dealing with businesses that pay for fake reviews on Yelp. Many of these companies will advertise on websites like Craigslist, offering to pay anyone who is willing to endorse their business.
“The way we have decided to combat that is we have a team that is dedicated to running sting operations. So we pose as review writers who are interested in selling reviews to whoever would like to buy them,” said Stoppelman. “It has been incredibly successful in that we have been able to catch businesses red handed.”
When Yelp catches a business paying for fake reviews, it posts a very large prominent consumer alert on their business page, which lasts for three months.
“It’s obviously a deterrent, and as more business owners find out that we’re out there hunting, and you’re likely to get caught red handed if you do, not only is it embarrassing but that’s really going to affect your business for those three months, in that it’s going to drive consumers away from your page,” said Stoppelman.
At the moment, Yelp is only conducting these “sting operations” in the United States, but it is planning to expand the activity to Europe – particularly after buying Qype, its largest European rival, in 2012. Since starting the campaign, Yelp has issued over 285 consumer alerts.
Stoppelman believes that this aggressive approach to review filtering gives Yelp a key competitive advantage over rivals like Google and Facebook, which host reviews but do not put quite so much effort into ensuring they are genuine.
“Essentially what we’re doing is stepping in and trying to nip it in the bud. It’s not an activity that we’re reacting to – meaning we’re seeing a business is getting a great reputation because they’re paying for reviews – it’s we’re going after them at the moment they’re trying to cheat,” he said.
“So we’re just warning consumers that this behaviour isn’t really acceptable, this business is trying to mislead you and we want you to know about this.”