Yelp’s Control of Fake Reviews

It can be very frustrating when a trusted source turns out to be fabricated. There is not much to trust on the Internet, and for that very reason, sometimes comments, statuses, and reviews are the only things one can trust. In September, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman fined 19 companies for writing phony positive reviews on the website Yelp after a sting operation conducted by the website itself. In the wake of this, fake reviews have been drawing much attention in the media, especially because this phenomenon appears on nearly all websites that allow for reviews, such as Yelp, Google Local and Citysearch . As people already get used to absorbing and relying on online information for making “correct” choices, user-generated content becomes the most honest and credible. Where is your argument about the ethics of this conduct?

However, certain businesses manipulate the system of reviews to boost their reputation by creating phony reviews. Yelp came up with an automatic filtering system to manage all the reviews long ago to assure the quality of content and to protect their customers from being tricked, so to speak. Yet there are still businesses willing to pay for fake reviews, and willing to risk violating the law. 

Yelp has 71 million visitors per month and over 27 million reviews. It is the “go-to” network for businesses to gain word-of-mouth awareness on the Internet. For those businesses that make fake reviews, “free-riders,” Yelp is also the fertile land to grow customers by creating positive reviews and then gaining undeserved reputation. Study shows that a one-star increase in a Yelp rating can boost the revenue of a restaurant by 10%, says Vince Sollitto, Yelp’s VP and COO.  Thus, this free-riding behavior consequently misleads consumers and stirs up unfair competition between businesses, leading to a decreased brand value for Yelp. 

By some estimates, 30% of online reviews are completely fraudulent. Faking reviews is gradually becoming a recognized industry. Fakers and businesses can find each other through an advertising website or other bulletin board systems. This profession can pay up to $50 per review and only requires an Internet connection. It is not difficult work for people who seek quick money and have low ethical standards. In other words, asking someone to write fake reviews, which is not a complicated task, could help any business generate easy-gained page-views and overturn.

Another rationale for businesses willing to use phony reviews is the misconception between advertising behavior and fraudulent behavior. There is also a business of Yelp that provides search advertising which can put a business’s information on the top of the search results as Google search advertising does. What makes phony reviews cross the line from advertising into fraudulence is that they claim they are real. There is a clear difference in trust between an advertisement from the company and the opinion of a fellow customer. Releasing advertisement with the coat of user-generated content to take advantage of accountability and honesty is unethical and unacceptable; in a way, it is ethically worse than a simple fraudulent advertisement.

Since Yelp began in 2004 as a mainly desktop-based cloud service platform, users have accumulated into a solid community base, which is Yelp’s unique value, and the reason it focuses on content integrity and user protection. Yelp is different from a random review-driven website; Yelpers are served with only useful, controlled, and managed information due to aggressive filtering by algorithms. The exact process, however, remains undisclosed to protect Yelp’s business interests.

Even by having the mighty filtering system, Yelp can never have absolute confidence they have rooted out all fraudulent reviews. In the meantime, there are innocent businesses complaining that Yelp removed their reviews without warrant or explanation. One cosmetic surgeon called up her local news station about Yelp’s removing actual reviews by her customers. After, only 15 visible reviews remained on her page, while the filtered reviews, collected in a pale link at the bottom of the page, were far more numerous. There were thirty of them, which is twice the amount of the visible ones. Those filtered reviews are not calculated in the total star rating. This surreptitiously erasing of user-generated activity might offend more businesses and users in the future.

Aside from its community management and content control, Yelp also values avoiding anonymous reviews, having users tell their truthful experiences along with information about the user, such as age and profession, which enables users to identify relevant reviews from the varied tastes of writers. By doing so, Yelp fills the holes of perceptions and approximate users. Yelp displays this information to keep themselves as a trusted source for the millions of people who use it every month, as well as to protect users and business from malicious reviews and competition, though with a certain lack of transparency.

Companies like Yelp could choose to filter out what they suspect is fraudulent content to protect their firm’s reputation from eroding, but this might infringe upon the benefits of their business by eliminating actual content, as well as the right users to see all content from different points of view. If they aren’t careful, a company could become the object of scrutiny rather than those businesses which conduct the original crime. Along with the risk of annoying and scaring off content generators, Yelp will go further in demanding and dictatorial policies. As a result, again the same old rule will apply to even the most trust-worthy content: buyer beware.

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