The Truth About Yelp Reviews and Advertising

by · November 20, 2013

The Truth About Yelp Reviews and Advertising

Last month while at Sean Bradley’s Internet Sales 20 Group in Los Angeles, a debate arose around the idea of Yelp cornering dealers into purchasing Enhanced Listings and/or advertising in order to unlock positive reviews on their review pages. As one who has personally investigated this subject with Yelp directly and, I couldn’t help but take part in the dialog.

Over the years, Yelp has been the target of complaints alleging that its filter discriminates in favor of advertisers, going in some cases as far as claiming that the filter is nothing other than an “extortion mechanism” for advertising revenue. Yelp has denied these allegations, and successfully defended itself in court when lawsuits have been brought against it (for example, see Levitt v. Yelp Inc., and Demetriades v. Yelp Inc.)

If such allegations were true, they would raise serious concerns as to the validity of using filtered reviews as a proxy for fake reviews.

What are Filtered Reviews?

Yelp is the only major review site to date that allows access to filtered reviews – reviews that Yelp has classified as illegitimate using a combination of algorithmic techniques, simple heuristics, and human expertise. Filtered reviews are not published on Yelp’s main listings, and they do not count towards calculating a business’ average star-rating.

While Yelp does not reveal how it’s review filter works (not even to key personnel), it states that, “the filter sometimes affects perfectly legitimate reviews and misses some fake ones too,” but, “does a good job considering the sheer volume of reviews and the difficulty of its task.”

Yelp does retroactively filter reviews using the latest version of its detection algorithm. Therefore, a Yelp review can be initially filtered, but subsequently published (and vice versa.)

Reality is that Yelp’s current implementation of the filtering algorithm does not treat advertisers’ reviews in a manner different from non-advertisers’ reviews. Independent investigations have been performed and revealed a lack of filtering biases associated with advertising, which increases my own confidence in the idea of using filtered reviews as an unbiased, albeit imperfect, proxy for fake reviews.

In fact, one particular report reveals that neither 1- nor 5-star reviews were significantly more or less likely to be filtered for businesses that were advertising on Yelp.

Percentage of Filtered Yelp Reviews by User Count

Does Yelp Favor its Advertisers?

Local business advertising constitutes Yelp’s major revenue stream. Advertisers are featured on Yelp search results pages in response to relevant consumer queries, and on the Yelp pages of similar, nearby businesses. Furthermore, when a business purchases advertising, Yelp removes competitors’ ads from that business’ Yelp page.

But favoring positive reviews for advertisers and pushing negative ones for non-paying merchants is illogical and self-defeating. The most important challenge of any site collecting reviews is the integrity of the reviews. The minute a review site contaminates it reviews, the site loses credibility.

What all this boils down to is not that Yelp doesn’t experience fraudulent reviews but that there is no evidence of Yelp favoring merchant reviews for those that are advertised tising and vice versa, Yelp is not pushing negative, let alone fraudulent reviews for non-advertising merchants.

That said, it is certainly in your interest as a dealership to be advertising on Yelp, but that’s a topic for another post.

Why you don’t want to foster reviews on Yelp?

The case of a business owner “nudging” consumers by providing them with instructions on how to review his or her business is in a legal grey area. Most review sites – whose purpose is to collect reviews that are as objective as possible – frown upon such interventions, and encourage business owners to avoid them.

In the auto business, it has become common practice for dealers to urge or nudge customers to leave reviews. If you are sending people emails with links to Yelp to leave reviews, or placing links on your website for people to leave reviews of your dealership on Yelp, quite frankly I think you are wasting your time. More often than not Yelp is going to filter those reviews and they won’t count towards your rating, plus you just eliminated a positive reviews that could have been left somewhere else.

I mean this half jokingly but maybe a good practice is to identify unhappy customer and give them links to Yelp. This way your negative reviews are more likely to be filtered.*

ps – Please don’t follow that advice. I am being a smart ass.

*A good portion of the contents of this article were derived from an independent academic study on the subject which you can download and read here if you want, but I basically gave you the buts and bolts of it in this post. You’re welcome.