Don't Trust Yelp (Or Anyone Else) With Your Online Reputation

Is Yelp using negative user reviews to coerce small businesses into buying its advertising? I don’t know, but it wouldn’t be the first time that a media company had tried such an innovative approach.

One way to tell might be to look at Yelp’s balance sheet, but who really knows? Does Yelp have an economic incentive in a tough economy to coerce potential advertisers? I don’t know and can’t say.

People have yet to figure out what it means to have largely removed gatekeepers from the media mix. It has been decided, by venture capitalists mostly, that the voice of the people is a fine substitute for professional journalists and reviewers. As one of the professionals, I’ve wondered how long it would take for readers to understand they get what they pay for. Anonymous reviews on sites that may have nothing to lose are, in general, pretty suspect.

Yelp presents supposedly customer-generated reviews on individual pages devoted to a specific business. Heck, I’ve even posted some comments about local restaurants--all positive comments, I should add. That the system is ripe for manipulation by the unscrupulous should go without saying.

The response from Yelp’s COO, Geoff Donaker--that selling review positioning (moving bad reviews down and good ones up) would be counterproductive--is lunacy. He says doing that would hurt Yelp’s credibility and eventually drive him out of business. I ask, “How would a reader know?”

Yelp is accused of offering to move negative reviews and replace them with positive reviews, for a $299-a-month fee. The company admits it gives advertisers to ability to select a positive review for the top position on its pages. Angry prospects allege Yelp places negative ads into top positions to push its advertising. “You can pay to have this removed,” would be the Sopranos-esque pitch.

How would a reader know whether Yelp is cooking reviews? I guess you’d have to go to a bunch of Yelp-rated businesses and compare your experiences to what the reviewers had to say. Or you can just consider the allegations and decide on that basis.

Again, I have no way to know whether the allegations against Yelp are true. I about half accept the COO’s suggestion that Yelp’s ad sales reps are doing unintentionally misleading presentations and that’s the cause of the complaints. However, I can’t imagine Yelp could drive enough traffic to a local business to make the $299 monthly fee worthwhile.

Either way, Yelp’s willingness to sell positioning for any reason makes the whole affair suspect. My bet is the paid top reviews are mostly, truth be known, advertiser written. And who could blame a small business person for gaming a system that’s so ripe for being gamed?

All user-generated review content on the Internet should be considered suspect. It can be difficult or impossible to know how the content is generated and by whom. Or how the publisher manipulates the content to meet its sales goals.

Even though users aren’t paying to read Yelp’s opinions, this case reminds us that, even when something’s free, buyers should still beware.

My advice for small businesses seeking to make their names known online is to tread very carefully and study what is being offered. There seem to be a zillion Internet directories, including Yelp, trying to separate small entrepreneurs from their money. No one could afford to invest in all of them, but I am not sure there is a good way--short of recommendations from real people that you really trust--to separate the good ones from the rip-offs. I think most small businesses would be better off investing in their own Web sites first--and getting the search engine optimization right--rather than buying advertising from sites they've never heard of or personally used. I also have a bias that local businesses should support their local media first.

David Coursey is a 25-year veteran of the tech industry who learned long ago to take everything he reads on the Internet with a grain of salt. E-mail him at david@coursey.com.

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