Has Yelp’s Bus Left the Station?

adminCustomer Reviews, Fake Reviews, Negative Reviews, Review Fraud, Review Spam, Yelp

Reviews by first-time Yelpers are much more likely to be filtered than the review site’s more prolific contributors. Is there any reason for new Yelpers to still get on the bus?


Yelp and the Problem of Review Fraud

Online reviews on well-trafficked sites like Yelp can make or break a business. So it’s no wonder that this power is being abused by businesses and consumers alike. “Review fraud” plagues Yelp and threatens to erode the value and trustworthiness of its reviews for everyone.

Understandably, then, Yelp is fighting back. Yelp’s review “filter” is perhaps the most aggressive in the industry. But its aggressive filtering also introduces biases of its own. A new working paper entitled “Fake it Till You Make it: Reputation, Competition and Yelp Review Fraud” exposes some interesting facts about Yelp’s review filter by analyzing over 316,000 published and filtered reviews written in the metropolitan Boston area from 2004 through 2012. Notably:

  • 50,000 reviews, or 16%, were filtered and left unpublished
  • A reviewer who contributes frequently is much more likely to be published than a first- or second-time reviewer
  • A reviewer without a profile picture is 41% more likely to be filtered
  • Neutral 3-star ratings are more likely to be published than extreme 1- or 5-star ratings

What New Yelpers Can Do

On the one hand, the findings would suggest that the door is closed and Yelp’s bus is leaving the station:  If haven’t posted to Yelp before, don’t bother now. Yelp’s most prolific, wannabe food critics almost always have a voice while its first-time or infrequent contributors almost never do. That bias may keep out casual cheaters, but unfortunately it also frustrates new entrants and bestows privilege on the Yelp Elite that has allegedly been used to extort small businesses.

But New Yelpers can still break through and increase their chances of being published by:

  • Fixing their account with a profile photo
  • Keeping their opinions moderate (at least at first)

Faceless accounts are 41% more likely to be filtered. And extreme ratings on Yelp’s 5-star scale are significantly more filtered than neutral ratings. So color notwithstanding, a review that says, “3 stars. This place had good dim sum,” may be less offensive to Yelp’s filter than one that says, “5 stars. The dumplings that came with the dim sum were perfect pouches of meaty goodness,” or one that says, “1 star. The dim sum was just…dim. The dumplings were overcooked.”

No doubt sophisticated fraudsters will increasingly find and pull all of Yelp’s algorithmic levers, so the company has its work cut out for it – as do we honest contributors – if we want to keep online reviews a valuable and trustworthy source on where to eat, sleep and drink in the future.