The extortionists at Yelp

When I told a friend about East Coast Aero Club’s experience with Yelp, he pointed me to “Yelp Accused of Extortion” in WIRED magazine. Our story: We asked our customers to register with Yelp and post reviews of our airplane and helicopter flight school.  About 15 of them did so and the Yelp page was filled with positive reviews. A few days later, however, we looked and 11 of them had been removed. Now it is down to just 2 reviews. Another friend said “Just wait; they are going to call you up soon and ask you to pay them a monthly fee. Then they will restore the positive reviews. Companies with a lot of negative reviews get the same call; if they pay a fee the negative reviews are removed.”

[At first I thought that, because the reviews were entered over just a few days, Yelp might have legitimately thought that they were spam. But then I reflected that they were all from legitimate and diverse email address, from diverse IP addresses (though probably nearly all in the Boston area), and pretty clearly from different pens. A human reviewer would not have concluded that these were spam.]

[Update: I got an email from a reader, who happens also to be a Yelp employee. He says that the allegations are unfounded and that whether or not reviews appear is purely algorithmic, with the main goal of the algorithm being to fight spam. He is not allowed to say much more than what’s published at on the subject, but obliquely confirmed my suspicion that the algorithm might suppress reviews from people who register, post one review, and leave. The goal of Yelp is to have a genuine community in which people return to the site regularly, so burying the contributions of people who aren’t regulars might not be unreasonable. It is kind of tough on a business like East Coast Aero Club. Apparently our young customers are too poor to eat in restaurants and our older customers are boring, married, and suburban. So none of them were regular Yelp users to begin with.]

11 thoughts on “The extortionists at Yelp

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I read the linked article from the East Bay Express:

    Yelp’s business practices sound downright nasty. I can’t say that I trust them any longer after reading this. Too bad, it seemed such a useful site – but if the reviews aren’t accurate, then what’s the point?

    Most reviews on online shopping sites are edited, too – I’ve had perfectly legitimate reviews removed from both B&H and Adorama for example. Amazon seems to be the lone exception.

  2. I agree that Yelp may not be perfect, however, I’ve been a contributor to several different online communities, and Yelp’s actions according to your description actually seems fair.

    It’s not hard to spoof different email and IP addresses and a sudden burst of positive reviews from brand new users would suggest ballot stuffing to an end user like me.

    User reputations are critical to maintaining trust within online communities. And for better or for worse, often you need to earn the trust of established users within the community. That said, I hope that Yelp comes up with a way to verify that a reviewer is actually a customer similar to how Amazon does this with their “verified buyer” badge.

  3. I posted three reviews for eateries on Yelp, two positive and one negative. Each one was lengthy and specific, and each took me nearly a half hour to write.

    Nearly every time I visited the site I would log in, and I was glad to have written sincere and detailed experiences that I hoped would be helpful to other readers. However, one day I didn’t log in and happened to notice that my reviews didn’t appear for each of the three reviews I had written. I couldn’t figure out why, so I tried logging in and guess what? When I subsequently logged in they DID appear. I asked a friend to confirm this by checking for my three reviews and he couldn’t find them either, so it became apparent that Yelp tricked me into believing the reviews were there when they actually were not appearing to anyone else. I just can;t imagine the audacity of this practice.

    I wrote to them (after searching for an another half hour to find where to direct a question) to ask for an explanation. They replied that they had an “algorithm” that sometimes blocked legitimate reviews, but that was their policy. It was infuriating to think I had wasted my valuable time and effort in trying help them and their “community.”

    I say to apologist “jm” that the entire spirit of participation is negated by Yelp’s behavior in spite your assurances that ballot stuffing is prevented by their policies. There is no way to actually safeguard against that kind of behavior except by having a participatory democracy; that means “every” review is visible. By having an overwhelmingly large and participatory audience the false reviews will be overwhelmed by the legitimate and thus there is no need for censorship of any kind.

    I really wanted to have a site like this that I could trust for true user reviews, but as a result of their policies I will never have anything to do with Yelp ever again. I took their app off my phone and refuse, even when searching the web to go to a resulting link with their website as destination.

    Although they’ve done a great job of hyping Yelp and pumping up the minions, my experience and interaction with them leaves me with deep suspicions of their practices and it wouldn’t surprise me at all that these allegations of extortion are true.

  4. So all you will have is a collection of reviews by career Yelpers. What are the motivations of the career Yelper? Are they aligned with providing objective reviews and if so, how can you assure that a career Yelper’s review about a particular business type is knowledgeable and/or ethical? I submit that you probably cannot. It isn’t pure, but purity might be impossible as many sites with review or moderation systems have learned (Slashdot, anyone?). Did you receive a call? If you did not, would you have if you hadn’t posted this?

    If they called businesses with offers to re-align the reviews, they lose all credibility. If they did not, then the only reparation is to make transparent that Yelp reviewers must be career reviewers in order for their reviews to stand – simply reveal the bias of their algorithm like honest science demands. IMHO 😉 Disclaimer – I think Yelp is useless.

  5. Dear Fabian,

    I was extremely concerned to read your posting; at Adorama Camera we value transparency in every aspect of our business – but particularly, customer feedback.

    I would be grateful if you could contact me directly with details of any of your reviews which you believe may have been removed from our website, and I will give this my immediate attention.

    Thank you for your help in this. I do look forward to hearing from you.

    Helen Oster
    Adorama Camera Customer Service Ambassador


  6. I attended a small lecture in San Francisco recently given by a Yelp employee. The bottom line here is that Yelp uses a quality filter to suppress fake reviews or low quality reviews, and they ask merchants specifically NOT to request reviews from their customers because doing so is inorganic. If you ask a bunch of people to write a review, and they have never written reviews at yelp before, they will likely get suppressed until some later date as they become more active at Yelp and Yelp is able to determine that they are a legit user.

    Yelp does not tie reviews and money together. They are in the advertising business. They sell premium placement on their search results pages. The only crossover with reviews, is that they let advertisers display one “featured” review at the top of the reviews page. They don’t remove positive reviews if you fail to pay and any notion of this IS coincidence and not some kind of conspiracy.

  7. @Scott,

    My wife is an ex yelp employee and can confirm that yelp does in fact alter what reviews are displayed in order to extort money from business’s.


  8. Most of Yelp review are fake. If you look at the number of review the “elete people post in relation to the date they have “Been Yelping Since” on the profile left side, you will see that some of these people posted an average of 4, 5 or 6 reviews a week for years non-stop. They post hundreds of photos and miraculously seem to be the “first to review” many many places.

    This is done to hype the business to SELL ADS to outside companies and to sell what ever the hell they sell to mom and pop business for hundreds of dollars a month.


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