Sunday, February 22, 2009

Social Media Threatens Traditional Media. Again.

I see about three articles like this per week, where a professional journalist takes a pot-shot at an up-and-coming social media site or application, and reveals just how impotent and threatened social media makes them feel.

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.

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.
"I don't know and can't say". This seems to be the thesis to his article.
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?

He continues:
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?
"Paid top reviews"? Again, taking a look at a sponsored entry, like this one for Cafe Claude, any reader can see that:
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.

2 comments:

  1. Hi Eric:

    Thanks for responding. I am not opposed to social media at all. I am concerned, as I am with traditional media, about the objectivity and fairness of the information we consume.

    As for your comments:

    1. I didn't write the headline. My editor did.

    2. Large portions of the article are about pointing out that whole sites could be faked (I doubt it, but local reviews sites could be) without getting sued by Yelp. Perhaps the complaints are totally valid. I don't know and I don't want to get sued.

    3. There are sooooo many of these review sites that there really is no way for a small business to follow or respond to them. Or buy ads on them.

    4. I can't imagine that giving Yelp $299 gets you very much. And it is easy to imagine someone using a social media site for extortion.

    I think that social media is just fine. It's a cheap way for publishers to get people to provide content for free. Some free content is fine, but it's not as wonderful as you suggest.

    I think the big issue with social media is, as this story points out, how it is monetized. The Facebook TOS flaps have been about the company's search for revenue. It suggests that Facebook is willing to do anything for a buck, Yelp seems pretty close to that.

    We need to find a model for supporting social media that doesn't have a negative impact on the content (or those impacted by it).

    I think I will write about that issue. Thanks for bringing up.

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  2. Mr. Coursey-

    First, allow me to thank you for your response and comments here.

    1) I'm sorry your editor saddled your article with a misleading headline.

    2) Large portions of your article seem entirely devoted to the potential abuses on Yelp by reviewers. No other review sites are mentioned, even in the abstract.
    As far as reviews being faked, you make only two off-hand inferences:

    Anonymous reviews on sites that may have nothing to lose are, in general, pretty suspect.

    This is a statement I can wholeheartedly support. But you go on to say:

    Yelp presents supposedly customer-generated reviews on individual pages devoted to a specific business.

    I think I detailed a pretty strong defense of Yelp's methods against this kind of abuse in my post. While Yelp may allow reviews by pseudonyms, the reputation system is fairly robust and resistant to manipulation.

    Aside from those two references, your article is largely dedicated to potential or alleged abuses specifically by Yelp's ad sales reps, and by somewhat inaccurately describing the mechanics of how such abuses could take place. Again, I believe my post offers a fairly solid defense of their transparency, and shows how this kind of manipulation would be difficult for Yelp to pull off.

    3) I won't argue with this statement at all. You are entirely correct in saying that there are so many review sites that few if any small businesses could keep up with them, if some of them were indeed "gaming the system". But again, I'm not sure how your readers could infer that you were talking about any site aside from Yelp, considering the specificity with which you used examples from, statements about, or quotations from personnel at, *Yelp*

    4) Again, I wholeheartedly agree. $299 wouldn't get a big business very much from Yelp, let alone small businesses. Of course, part of the reason that paying Yelp doesn't get you much is precisely because Yelp is so transparent about what was paid for. Paying to highlight one good review isn't going to do you much good if your average review is 2/5 stars.

    If your take is that social media is simply "a cheap way for publishers to get people to provide content for free", I can see why it wouldn't seem particularly wonderful to you. However, I see it as a way to allow people to communicate with each other in the market directly, thus gathering and sharing data for themselves about the quality of products and services offered to them, instead of relying on the slick advertising of traditional media.

    Ah but now we've finally reached the problem: monetization. If participants in social media are slowly becoming immune to traditional advertising, where will traditional media get its money? To suggest that, by selling clearly labeled and transparent sponsorships, Yelp is somehow unscrupulous, what about the ads on PC World's site?

    Finally, the Facebook TOS flap is in many ways about monetization, but when it overstepped it's bounds, the users used Facebook itself to defeat it, creating protest groups on the site. In some cases, they walked away from Facebook altogether. Similarly, many people are walking away from traditional media now that it's not the only game in town. This in turn creates a problem of monetization via advertising for traditional media. Social media does indeed have a problem to contend with in regards to a monetization model, but not nearly the problem that traditional media is facing with their own.

    Mr. Coursey, again thank you for taking the time to comment here, you have earned yourself a regular reader. Though I feel that by the very nature of the reputation systems on sites like Yelp, Slashdot, and EBay, we're already finding ways to sort the good voices from the bad, I'm very much looking forward to your article on supporting social media, and preserving the quality of content.

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