Businesses that get caught soliciting favorable reviews are increasingly running the risk of getting slapped with a badge of shame.
Like every website that depends on consumer critiques, Yelp has a problem with companies trying to manipulate their results.
So it set up a sting operation to catch them.
The first eight firms – including a moving company, two repair shops and a concern that organizes treasure hunts found themselves exposed on Thursday .
For the next three months, their Yelp profile pages will feature a “consumer alert” that says: “We caught someone red-handed trying to buy reviews for this business.”
Potential customers will see the incriminating emails trying to hire a reviewer.
With online and offline commerce increasingly driven by reviews, businesses can be irresistibly tempted to make themselves look better than they are. They commission favorable descriptions of themselves and may even bribe customers to say how terrific things were. The most unscrupulous write unflattering comments about competitors.
TripAdvisor has put up similar warning notices, but declined to say how extensive its effort was.
In general, however, review hubs have tended to deal with fakery very quietly, even as the problem has grown.
“The bigger Yelp gets, the more incentive there is to game the system,” said Eric Singley, its vice president for consumer products and mobile. “These notices are the next step in protecting consumers.”
Yelp has more than 30 million reviews. For every five new notices that are submitted, one is determined by internal filters to be so dubious – either highly favorable or highly critical – that it is banned to a secondary page, which few users bother with, instead of appearing on the business’s profile page. Many of the reviews tagged as fake are written by people new to Yelp.
To have the best shot at getting a solicited review onto a profile page, a sneaky business needs to find someone with a track record on the site, whom Yelp has dubbed an “elite” reviewer. It does this by advertising on classified sites such as Craigslist.
That was where Yelp went to conduct its sting. A Yelp employee posed as an elite reviewer and got the businesses to reveal themselves. The size of the promised payments varied widely, and so did the work required.
A pest control company offered $5 to anyone who would post a review that the business itself had written. The moving company was willing to pay $50 but wanted original copy. An appliance repair shop provided a start: “I really appreciate that the service tech was on time, the problem was solved, everything was cleaned up and he was very professional. Please add 50 or more words,” the shop suggested. It would pay $30.
The highest payment was offered by a jewelry store in San Diego, which said it was forced to solicit reviews after others got away with doing it.
“We have noticed that some of our larger, corporate run competitors have been unfairly trying to get reviews written for them on Yelp, which puts us at a disadvantage,” wrote Bert Levi of Levi Family Jewelers. He said he would pay $200 for a review of a new custom-designed ring.
Asked Wednesday for his side of the episode, Levi said, “I need to talk to my lawyer.”
Jessica Hernandez, a proprietor of a Chicago hair salon, was more vocal. Yelp said it caught her salon, Mirror Mirror, offering $10 to complete this tribute: “You want to write about how you visited Chicago and wanted to get your hair colored and cut for a date you flew out to meet with. You ended up loving it. You happened to walk by and walked in and was serviced instantly. Feel free to add great details of your own.”
Hernandez said she knew nothing about any efforts to buy a review, but had some harsh words for Yelp. The site had been so aggressive in seeking advertising from her, “if I could physically put a restraining order on them, I would. As God is my witness, they literally would call every 15 minutes. I put a block on my phone.”
Considering the volume of fake reviews, putting a spotlight on eight businesses is only a modest crackdown. “It is safe to say this is just a sample” of businesses soliciting reviews, said Singley of Yelp.David Streitfeld is a reporter with The New York Times.