Yelp's Way of Caving to Corporate Pressure and Hiding Reviews While Saying They Didn't Delete Anything

Update:  This post may be unfair, as discussed here.  I am not fully convinced, though.

A few days ago I posted a negative review of Applied Underwriters, and linked to this post on my blog for much more detail.  Yelp promptly pulled the review, saying I violated their terms of service by linking to a commercial web site.  I thought that bizarre, since my blog has absolutely nothing commercial about it.   But it made more sense when I received a letter from Applied Underwriters demanding that I take down my negative Yelp review or they would sue me for libel.  I don't know for sure what happened, but I suspect that Applied Underwriters sent Yelp a similar demand and they used the link in the review as an excuse to delete it and avoid legal entanglements.

So I posted an updated review with more detail and no link.  Now, Yelp is hiding the review, along with most of the other negative reviews, behind a nearly invisible link at the bottom that says "other reviews that are not currently recommended".  Scroll down to the bottom of this page and you may see it if you have a keen eye.  It is not even clear it is a link, but if you click on it, you get all the bad reviews Yelp is hiding.

Let's dismiss all the reasons why Yelp might say they do this.  One is clarity, to reduce clutter.  But go to your favorite restaurant Yelp page.  Likely you will not see this link / hidden review phenomenon.  You will see pages and pages of reviews, far more than they would have to show if they just displayed all the reviews for Applied Underwriters.

So there must be another reason.  They say in their note there is a quality algorithm.  Anyone who has read a lot of Yelp reviews will know that if this is so, their quality algorithm is not working very hard.   They have a number of reviews that they "recommend" that are nothing more than a rant like "I will never use these guys again" while my unrecommended review includes paragraphs of detail about the service.  They say it is based on your review volume as well, but I have more Yelp review volume than several of the others who seem to pass the screen.

All of which leads me to believe that this is Yelp's purgatory where they hide reviews based on corporate pressure.  They have gotten a lot of cr*p publicly about deleting bad reviews from sponsors and from corporations that pressure them to do so.   They have a zillion self-righteous FAQ's asserting that they don't delete anything.   So imagine Applied Underwriters sends Yelp loads of threats to take down each negative review that comes up.  What do they do?  They put them in the not-recommended purgatory.  They can claim that they haven't deleted anything, but absolutely no one will ever likely see the review.  And they don't count any longer to the company's review count, so for all intents and purposes they are gone.

All of this is a guess, because it is absolutely impossible to contact Yelp about these issues.  No phone numbers.  The ones in general directories for San Francisco don't work for them.  You can't email or chat or contact their customer support in any way.  For a company in the transparency business, they avoid it like the plague.

But do you want to know what makes me doubly sure of my analysis?  Because there is no way to up-rate any of the "not recommended" reviews.  I would have thought the whole up-rating system was how they sorted reviews to present the most relevent at the top, but you can't do that with the ones they have put in purgatory.  Why?  Because these reviews are being put in purgatory not for some customer benefit but to protect corporations able to put pressure on Yelp.  Yelp doesn't want them uprated.  They are supposed to disappear.    If I had time, I would compare the number of "not recommended" reviews for corporations with powerful legal staffs like Applied Underwriters to the number for Joe's local business  (AU has 17 recommended reviews but a 28 full reviews that have been "disappeared" as unrecommended).

  • Fritz

    More about Yelp, which may not be news to you: I know personally of a family-owned heating and air-conditioning business that provides excellent service. Yelp has buried my positive review of that business, and the positive reviews of other users of that business. The owners of the business have told me that they have refused to buy advertising from Yelp. The formula seems to be "no advertising, no positive reviews."

  • Phil

    For what it's worth, they don't hide reviews of only big businesses. My ex teaches piano lessons and several of her students signed up for Yelp just to leave her a good review, which went into purgatory. It looks like you have only 3 reviews, which might be part of it. Although I would not be at all surprised if pressure from the insurance company is part of it.

  • Russ R.

    Thank you Warren.

    Today I learned to go DIRECTLY to the "not recommended reviews".

  • ErikTheRed

    I'm not going to entirely defend Yelp, whose algorithms are often derided as "sketchy," but one good way to make sure your reviews get lost is to not write many of them. If you have 15 or 20 reviews and kick out a few more per year then you'll probably never have your reviews hidden. The reason for this is that some people create an account just to write one or two really great or really awful reviews, and these are often astroturfing.

    You only have three reviews, which pretty much makes you "hidden-bait."

  • W Wolf

    Has Yelp removed all the fake reviews of Memories Pizza yet? That's one thing that's clearly disallowed by their terms of service.

  • morgan.c.frank

    i have also heard numerous times (but have no personal experience) that yelp plants bad reviews on the listings of restaurants then offers to take the down for a fee in a mafia-style extortion model.

    they are simply not a trustworthy source of reviews. i tend to ignore them.

    the web is ripe for a "reputation 2.0" model with verifiable interactions, weighting based on the quality of the source and the verifiability of their id, and back-chaining so that repeated liars lose the ability to wield influence.

    it's a very difficult problem, but one we really need to solve" how do we make online opinion act like real life opinion? if 2 of your friends give you a dinner recommendation, you are unlikely to weight them equally. if someone gives you a bad recommendation, you ignore them in the future. you're more likely to listen to a tax lawyer on tax issues than a barista.

    this is EXACTLY to sort of thing that blockchain is going to be really good at. i think we are just a few years from being able to consign yelp style reviews to the internet dustbin.

  • CT_Yankee

    Make a review recommending people check the not-recommended reviews.

  • Dustin Barnard

    I'm not sure it has anything to do with corporate pressure. I assumed it was common knowledge that yelp manipulates their reviews based on whether or not companies pay them (buy ads). Companies that refuse to buy ads on yelp get positive reviews buried and companies that do can get negative ads buried.

  • http://itsaboutliberty.com/index.php MNHawk

    All I need to know about the fraud that is Yelp

    http://www.yelp.com/biz/memories-pizza-walkerton

  • Michael Stack

    The only issue with this explanation (not enough reviews to his credit) is that as Warren pointed out in his original post, there is no way to up-vote these reviews and pull them out of purgatory. It's also interesting to me that not only has Yelp fenced off these reviews, it has largely hidden them entirely. If you didn't know those reviews were there, you would never find them.

  • Michael Stack

    Additionally while it's possible there are ranking factors beyond the number of reviews to an author's credit, there are a few reviews "above the fold" so to speak that were written by people with even fewer reviews to their credit.

  • skhpcola

    That's true. If Warren was more active with scribing reviews, his hidden reviews would become active reviews. I've seen it happen quite a few times, notwithstanding--as he points out--the several active reviews posted by not-very-active Yelpers. And posting a link in your review may actually get your review consigned to obscurity and be contrary to the user agreement...but I don't know that. It's obviously not a Yelp conspiracy to mute Warren or poor reviews, because that business has the worst star rating I've ever seen for a listing with more than a couple of reviews.

  • skhpcola

    That's not true. I know many businesses with great ratings and tons of reviews that have never paid Yelp a dime.

  • Dustin Barnard

    No system is perfect.

  • Guest

    It looks like others have learned to game Yelp's system. All but 2 of the recommended reviews are1 star reviews from very unsatisfied customers.

    While I've used Yelp a few times for restaurants, most of the news concerning Yelp is all bad. If this continues, Yelp will blow whatever reputation it has, which is it's only marketable value. After that, good luck making any money off that business model.

  • Arrian

    Since one of his reviews got nixed as a terms of service violation, I wouldn't be surprised if Warren gets flat out black balled by Yelp's algorithm. It's something I'd do: Even if I were trying to create a fair algorithm to ID good and bad reviews, if someone cannot follow the rules, they'll get a black mark so big that they'll need to follow up with Roger Ebert quality to overcome it.

  • Noumenon72

    As someone who has seen his review of a local business go to "Not Recommended", I will never review for the site again.

  • Devon Arrow

    Looks like I joined the club. All my @YELP reviews are suddenly deleted aka filtered aka not recommended.

    http://www.yelp.com/user_details?userid=ZN1YO2Z5loC_Sc8_Y3Xubw

    #Yelp, you jumped the shark. #FAIL