Don't Trust Yelp! (Or Anyone Else) With Your Online Reputation, by David Coursey at PC World, is particularly egregious, and I thought I'd dissect it a bit, for nothing else than to follow the sage advice of Robert Stacy McCain's How To Get A Million Hits on Your Blog. ("Make some enemies" is Rule #4, by the way).
First, even the title belies a fundamental lack of understanding about social media. If there's one thing that social media has shown us, it's that companies are no longer in control of their "brand". Whether you "trust" Yelp or not, your market might be using it to talk about you and your product or service. Your "trust" is neither asked for, nor required.
The article begins with the worst kind of local news hook, a la "Something could be inside your house right now, killing your children. Film at 11":
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."I don't know and can't say". This seems to be the thesis to his article.
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.What I *do* know, and *can* say is, as "one of the professionals", Mr. Coursey's ulterior motives for defending the status quo of the media elite are pretty clear. Venture capitalists aren't writing reviews on Yelp, the user community is. They may be somewhat anonymous, but the mechanics of the Yelp interface reveal just how trustworthy they are. Click on a reviewer's name, and you can see how many reviews they've written, how many people find those reviews useful, and how many compliments/complaints they've gotten from other users--everything you need to know about the reputation of the reviewer in the community. Some reviewers even have an "elite" badge next their profile picture. According to Yelp:
Elite-worthiness is based on a number of things, some of which include well-written and personal reviews of local businesses and services, being accountable for those reviews (use of a real name and photo, etc.)Note the emphasis on accountability to the community. Reviewers aren't just reviewing venues on Yelp, they're reviewing each other. I don't see any such mechanism to evaluate Mr. Coursey's reputation on PC World's site.
The thrust of the allegations come from this article in the East Bay Express:
In fact, something seemed shady about the state of his restaurant's negative reviews. "When you do get a call from Yelp, and you go to the site, it looks like they have been moved," John said. "You don't know if they happen to be at the top legitimately or if the rep moved them to the top. You don't even know if this is someone who legitimately doesn't like your restaurant. ... Almost all the time when they call you, the bad ones will be at the top."Now, as an experiment, go look up a local restaurant or venue on Yelp, and you'll notice two things. First, the default sort order of reviews is set to "Recent+Votes", meaning that the most popular and fresh reviews float up to the top. With a single click, the user can sort the order on date, reputation of reviewer, or how favorable the ratings are. The reader is in control of the presentation. If you are actually a sponsor on Yelp, as a business, you can select a single review as your favorite, and it will display in the top informational area, *clearly marked as such*.
Back to Coursey's article:
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.Or you could just run the allegations up the flagpole without looking into the mechanics of the site, and take a cheap pot-shot at a form of media that's threatening your entire profession. How about you consider *that* allegation, Mr. Coursey?
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."Paid top reviews"? Again, taking a look at a sponsored entry, like this one for Cafe Claude, any reader can see that:
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?
1) There is only a single "Top Review", separated from the main review list.
2) It is labeled as a favorite of the sponsor/owner of the venue.
3) There's a "what's this?" link on it, further explaining that it has been selected by the sponsor/owner.
Could they possibly offer more tranparency? Social media, in all it's forms, is about conversations and trust. If a site like Yelp could "game the system", even given the mechanisms they've built in to prevent it, the user community itself would cease to trust it (See what happened this week when Facebook edited its Terms of Service). Yelp is the very model of transparency in social media, which is precisely why it's such a threat to the traditional "gatekeepers" of media like Mr. Coursey. In a way, Mr. Coursey's article is an example of another kind of transparency: Mr. Coursey, we can see right through you.