Wherein I Try to Be Fair to Yelp

I need to try to be fair to Yelp.  A reader sends me some second-hand comments from an ex-employee at Yelp:

He absolutely believes that there is no way for Yelp to hide or promote reviews just based on who the company is. This doesn't mean that they're not, of course. What my colleague says, though, is that the overriding criterion that they use to determine if a review should be "recommended" is if they can verify that the writer is a real person.

There are a couple ways you can do this, but two that will actually cause all of your past reviews to suddenly become recommended:

1) Work for Yelp--not really helpful, I know. I am told that Yelp will instantly fire anyone who leaves reviews while working there. But, once you leave, all of your reviews will always be recommended.

2) Connect your Yelp account to your Facebook, then connect with 100 friends.

There are other ways to have past reviews always come up recommended. If you post a review or several reviews, and, in aggregate, you get four interactions (they are marked as funny, cool, or useful), this will happen.

So I went back and looked.  To see if one's reviews are in the non-recommended purgatory, you have to log out (Yelp will pretend to you that you are recommended until you log out**).  Sure enough, all my 9 reviews seem to be in purgatory.  In other words, any effort I expended on reviews has been wasted, because Yelp does not show them.  I tend to write longer reviews, so apparently writing fewer more detailed reviews is not a practice Yelp wants to promote.  Do they prefer folks who spam lots of short reviews?  I can see how that may be, since more reviews bulk up Yelp's numbers.

I don't know what to make of this feedback.  At one level, it seems right and makes sense.  There are a lot of not recommended reviews where the review has just that one review.  But not always.  For example, for this store, reviewers with no picture, no name (just initials), just 2 total reviews and no friends are recommended, but someone who has a picture, a real name, 1 friend and 31 reviews is not.   I have to say that either their algorithm has some purposely random element (to defeat reverse engineering) or else there are other factors involved than just the ones listed above.  Also, some of the advice above simply has to be wrong.  For example, the last sentence makes no sense since it is impossible to upvote or favorite reviews in not-recommended purgatory (they don't even give you the buttons to do so).

I will post some more reviews over time to see if I get pulled out of spam status by their computer, or if I am permanently exiled based on a corporate complaint.

** By the way, this could be the subject of a gripe in and of itself.  It should not be so opaque that one's posts are all getting sent to the Yelp spam folder.  It is kind of insulting to invest this effort and then find out later Yelp is trashing everything I write.

  • ErikTheRed

    Considering your status as a blogger, getting 100 friends should be easy enough. I'll send a request.

  • Onlooker from Troy

    Well thanks for getting this out. I now know that I won't waste my time writing Yelp reviews. I'd only done one so far, and am not likely to do many, so that's it for me.

    I don't know what the right answer is here. For sure there has to be some kind of process to make the reviews legit and meaningful, but that's a tough nut to crack, for sure.

  • slocum

    I have no interest in a review site that's hiding reviews based on any inscrutable algorithm. There's no way that algorithm won't be tweaked underhandedly. Yelp -- you're dead to me.

  • Matthew Slyfield

    "Wherein I Try to Be Fair to Yelp"

    Why?

  • jdgalt

    There are other ways to have past reviews always come up recommended. If you post a review or several reviews, and, in aggregate, you get four interactions (they are marked as funny, cool, or useful), this will happen.

    How do I "interact" with the reviews of someone whose reviews are in purgatory? I'd be happy to upvote several of yours, if there is some secret URL where I can get to them. (I refuse to join FacePlantBook.)

  • John O.

    Yeah this is why I don't give a damn about Yelp and most review services as they're easily gamed or rigged.

  • Matthew Phillips

    For info: if we assume you are in review purgatory because they think you might be a spammer, the last thing you do is tell someone you have identified them as a spammer. This is so they waste their time spamming rather than trying to game your system. Of course if someone is incorrectly labelled as a spammer then this is quite frustrating, as you have found out.
    Of course it could just be cheaper to hide reviews than fight lawsuits, but I wouldn't (publicly) make this assumption without proof

  • herdgadfly

    "It should not be so opaque that one's posts are all getting sent to the Yelp spam folder. It is kind of insulting to invest this effort and then find out later Yelp is trashing everything I write."

    Oh yes, the pot calling the kettle black. Spam filters employed by the Coyote Blog have, over the years, effectively (from time to time) blocked my nonsensical posts - until Disqus was added.

  • jdgalt

    And this is a problem why?

  • marque2

    I was actually pretty surprised at the trash Warren allowed on his page befor Disquis. Folks even bizarrely railing at the host. You must have had something extremely foul to get blocked, or removed. - or maybe the posting was down at times - that is why he moved to Disquis in the first place - hmm, one or the other - I'll go with your super outrageous rants.

  • herdgadfly

    Spam filters are pretty random about who gets cut off and we never know why. I have only been kicked off of two blogs, Little Green Footballs by Chucky Johnson himself and RedState by Erick Erickson who also doesn't like Ben Carson. Johnson was banning everyone who wouldn't march step to his Darwinism rants and Erickson warned everyone not to talk about Obama's birth certificate or lack there of.

    Disqus has never been a problem and one signup puts you on most popular blogs.

  • Scott Solar

    At an old job I had an email from the sales rep at yelp that said "if you pay us $300 a month you not recommended reviews will come back." Said reviews were fine and dandy for almost a year, that is until we refused to give then $300/ month. The next day 9 of 14 reviews were sent to purgatory.

  • JW

    And when you take into consideration how Yelp allows for the Special Snowflakes of Justice to mob it by leaving low-rated reviews for businesses they have done no business with, based solely on the reviewers impeccably enlightened views, Yelp is proving itself to be utterly worthless as a ratings platform.

  • jdgalt

    Agreed. So far, I've only managed to get banned from one -- The Other McCain.

  • ErikTheRed

    I've been a happy yelp user for several years now - both as a business and personal user. I did notice one semi-sketchy thing, though: when we moved our business the other year we "lost" our reviews for the old site and were told there wasn't anything that could be done about that. When we started buying ads this month (because Yelp does drive a decent amount of traffic our way and we wanted to be recommended in a wider radius), we noticed that our old reviews magically got added to our new location. This was not mentioned or promised during the sales pitch (and we didn't bring it up) - it just happened. We'll certainly take it though. That being said, we don't have any obvious power to move reviews in or out of purgatory, which is unfortunate because we have a lot of good reviews stuck there (and I have one or two that, as a selfish bastard, I wouldn't mind sending there - the people who write two paragraphs about how much they love your place and then only give you three stars).

    Here's what you can buy control of:

    "Slideshow" - $25 / month. Mainly, this lets you control which images show up first when someone visits your page. Totally worth it.

    "Call To Action" - $50 / month. Lets you put a button that links to a page on your website (make reservation, etc).

    "Block Competitor's Ads" - (I forget how much, probably $25 or $50 a month) Keeps ads from your competitors from showing up on your page.

    Other than that, though, we're reasonably happy with Yelp. I use it extensively when I travel, and quite a bit at home as well. I have several dozen reviews, none of which our filtered. We haven't had anybody abuse the review system on our business yet (knock on wood).

    I still have some complaints about advertising, none of which are necessarily unethical, but still frustrating:
    1) No real analytics. You can see how many clicks you get, but no aggregate statistics. You get a history of individual clicks that shows as much information as the Yelp user allows (typically none, but it may show their sex, the city they're from, and/or what decade their age is - 20s, 30s, etc). I don't need to know individual stats, but it would be nice to know what percentage of clicks we're getting from various age / sex / income groups and from various areas.
    2) No control over where your ads run. It seems to be a 20 mile radius, which significantly expands our "organic" reach, but we would prefer to target zip codes. Since most of the views are mobile and people let Yelp track location, this should be doable but isn't.
    3) I have no idea how their clicks are priced - that seems to be entirely opaque. That being said, our clicks are costing us just a little over half of what they told us they would so far so I'm not unhappy about this yet...

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

    What is the point of a service that features obviously fraudulent "reviews" every time its feral user base is whipped up into a political frenzy over a non politically correct business?

  • jdgalt

    Oh, I get it. Another digg.

  • John Doe

    I'd say the easy assumption is that you've been placed into purgatory for violating the ToS (with the complaint and the "commercial" link). If I was writing software trying to flag possibly-not-helpful-reviews, I think I'd certainly ding you pretty hard for that.

    Overall, I think the entire Yelp controversy is much-ado-about-nothing. They're tackling a very difficult problem in a necessarily opaque manner that most people don't have the capacity to understand but that can affect livelihoods and reputations - there's bound to be unhappiness and misclassification problems along the way. Does that prove nefariousness? Not by a long shot. Google has the same problem, and you hear the same complaints.

    > Also, some of the advice above simply has to be wrong. For example, the last sentence makes no sense since it is impossible to upvote or favorite reviews in not-recommended purgatory (they don't even give you the buttons to do so).

    It's not clear to me that a particular *reviewer* is recommended/not-recommended, so I took that advice as applying to other recommended reviews that you may (or may not) have.

    > Either their algorithm has some purposely random element (to defeat reverse engineering) or else there are other factors involved than just the ones listed above.

    Doubt it's actually random in mathematical terms; but it is likely sufficiently complex to seem random from the outside. And, yes, it's not a secret that there's a ton of variables at play (that likely change fairly often), some of which are secret sauce that we will never know about (to mitigate gaming the review system and/or as a trade secret - the same as Google's ranking algorithm).

    > I tend to write longer reviews, so apparently writing fewer more detailed reviews is not a practice Yelp wants to promote. Do they prefer folks who spam lots of short reviews? I can see how that may be, since more reviews bulk up Yelp's numbers.

    I don't think it's reasonable to assume that anyone at Yelp actually *reads* these reviews...and it's not clear that length should matter much in the spam/ham classification - it's easy enough to string together long spam paragraphs. Yelp also claims to filter biased reviewers (aren't all reviewers, by definition, biased?) - IME, those with an axe-to-grind are often the most vocal.

    > To see if one's reviews are in the non-recommended purgatory, you have to log out (Yelp will pretend to you that you are recommended until you log out**).

    A common method of dealing with spammers; you don't really want them to know that you've classified them as spam. That's why we don't send undeliverables back to spammers in email - they would just automate a modification of the email and resend until it got through.

    Again, while it may *seem* a personal affront - from Yelp's side of the table, your review isn't so worthy that they can't live without it. As you mention, Applied Underwriters has a 1.5 star ranking - whether *your* review is included or not doesn't really change that. Their software has seemingly done the job it was intended to here - anyone looking at AU's page of recommended reviews comes away with what seems to be an accurate view of the company. Whether they read your particular review isn't actually relevant.