Trapped between Yelp and a hard place

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Yelp will tell you it’s an unbiased review aggregator and a partner to small businesses, offering a host of tools that boost sales. But there’s an uglier side to the restaurant review site, one characterized by misinformation and ruled by an inscrutable algorithm.

Kimberly Wright runs Absolutely Divine Catering in Houston, Texas, and she’s been in the industry for 15 years, but if you took a cursory look at her Yelp page you might hesitate to hire her. Absolutely Divine Catering has three stars and three scorching reviews: One reviewer says she was noncommunicative before an event. Another says staffing at an event was horrible. The third says she served up a Sam’s Club tres leches cake instead of her specialty homemade cake she’d promised. Yikes.

Maddeningly for Wright, she says she didn’t staff the event where the person complained about waiters; she was only contracted for food. And there’s no way she promised anybody a tres leches cake—she doesn’t even make it.

“I contacted them [Yelp] and said I don’t do frickin desserts,” she said. Ultimately, Yelp let the review stand.

That might not sound damning, but in today’s social-media-driven landscape, such reviews can make or break a business. A 2013 study by the Boston Consulting Group found that businesses that used Yelp realized an average of $8,000 in revenue from Yelp. Even a slight dip in a restaurant’s overall star rating could encourage users to simply scroll down to the next one on the list.

There are three prominent positive reviews on Wright’s page too and an additional 15 other reviews, all but one positive, but they’re hidden behind Yelp’s filter, meaning the reviews didn’t past muster according to Yelp’s algorithm. The webpage design makes it clear that to click through to these unfiltered posts is to enter dubious territory.

Yelp has used software, like the filter, to manage recommendations since its inception. “Early on we realized we needed to have some kind of algorithm or software that removes human bias,” said Morgan Remmers, who is a manager of local business outreach for Yelp.

The idea is to promote quality over quantity. About 70 percent of submitted reviews are cleared by the algorithm, and more often than not those reviews come from active Yelp community members, Remmers said. Further, the two most likely reasons a review doesn’t cut it is because the reviewer is new to Yelp or the review appears to be either faked or biased in some way (e.g. written by the owner’s friend). There’s also a support team to suss out what the algorithm misses. If someone flags a review, a support team member will respond within five business days, Remmers claims.

Wright was worried about her business, so she hired a reputation management company to try and solve her Yelp problem. For $10,000, the company set up a second Yelp page for her business, so for awhile when you Googled her business, two Yelp pages would pop up. The firm also purported to be helping her improve her Google search results for certain keywords. The 10 grand was just the initial fee; there was monthly maintenance after that and Wright quit when nothing seemed to be really improving. “They were full of crap,” she said. “It was just a racket.” After that, all the company’s work disappeared.

There are more than 1500 complaints against Yelp listed on the Better Business Bureau’s website. Many echo Wright’s: negative reviews with factual errors are allowed to stand, and unsolicited positive reviews get filtered out of view. “It has moved me to 3 stars. I am a very small business. It is only myself. I only take 12 clients a year,” one reads, from an owner claiming damage from a false review. “Fake reviews-when contacted, they removed the wrong review, and left the fake one up,” reads another. Some of the complainants ask to be de-listed from Yelp because it has brought harm on their businesses, but Yelp does not allow businesses to opt-out. (It’s worth noting businesses don’t even have to sign-up for Yelp to begin with. Anyone can post a business’s address and information.)

Yelp was hit with lawsuits from all sides this year, from shareholders, small business owners, and Yelpers. The common thread seems to be figuring out what’s fair for a $4 billion-dollar business built on leveraging vast quantities of information obtained for free from unsubstantiated sources. In September, federal courts sided with Yelp and dismissed the most recent lawsuit alleging Yelp extorted businesses by jiggering reviews to strong-arm people into buying ads. The courts found the claims lacked evidence, and the judge wrote that even if Yelp was manipulating user content for profit purposes (which Yelp denies), this behavior was immunized by the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Section 230 of the act says a website can’t be held liable for what its users post.

Businesses can’t take themselves off Yelp, and the company maintains that consumers have a right to publish their opinions. Yelp also cites a host of data indicating it does businesses more good than harm: Of its 67 million reviews, 79 percent offer three stars or above, meaning users post more good than bad; and Yelp provides free tools so businesses can monitor their traffic and respond to reviews on their pages.

Perhaps Yelp benefits most businesses, most of the time. Even if true, that utilitarian assertion is no consolation to Wright, who doesn’t bake tres leches cake. If a magazine had published negative misinformation about her business, she might be able to take legal action, but Yelp isn’t responsible for the content of reviews. And yet the power of the Yelp brand gives it critical influence over the life and death of small businesses.

So, is it fair corporations profit off the collected speech of individuals but aren’t accountable to the impact that speech has on people like Wright?

“I think it’s an area that hasn’t been sufficiently legislated at this point,” said David Golumbia, professor of digital studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

For him, it all comes back to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the part that says websites aren’t liable for what the people who use them say. “That is the principle the industry defends really vigorously,” he said. Golumbia suggests Section 230 may need revision: “There probably is a finer grain distinction that could be made about certain kinds of practices, in which the aggregator needs to be responsible.”

Defenders of the current legislation say changes could have far-reaching impacts on many hubs of user-generated content—YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, and the like. Recently though, the section has faced increased public scrutiny because it’s also what allows website to repost stolen celebrity nudes with impunity (see Celebgate).

For now, Wright encourages her clients to post reviews on alternative sites like Angie’s List and Wedding Wire. By contrast, Yelp’s advice to business owners who receive bad reviews on their site is to engage, reach out, and contact the reviewer.

For Wright, that’s too little, too late. She’s fed up and mostly just tries to ignore Yelp altogether. She knows about all the lawsuits and that Yelp keeps winning them.

“They’re allowed to do what they’re doing,” she said, but nevertheless for her, “It’s been a horrible, horrible experience.”

Illustration by J. Longo

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