#YelpTownHall: Sanitized reviews by (allegedly) real people

The angry mob

Recently I attend the Kansas City “Yelp Town Hall For Business Owners in Kansas City” which was a free event for local businesses wanting to learn more about how to use and interact with Yelp.

Based on reports from LA , I expected some shall we say “heated” interaction Here in Kansas City, midwesterners are polite and shy so they were there mostly to listen rather than talk. This was a panel presentation with two members of the Elite Yelp squad speaking as well as two small business owners who were invited by Yelp to share their thoughts. One of these businesses was a small women’s boutique and another was a local multi-unit restaurant as well as the Matt Eyman, local Yelp community manager and Darnell Holloway, Senior Manager of Local Business Outreach

The meeting was primarily for novices going over the basics of what Yelp is, why a business should claim their free listing and a few dos and don’ts for business owners. Do respond to reviews, don’t get bent out of shape by bad reviews, and never solicit reviews. Most of the owners seem to already know this, so we quickly went to the Q&A portion of some of the nuances. For example, a hair stylists asked a great question pointing out one of the flaws. Lots of people reviewed his great work at his previous salon in which he rented space. Now that he moved to another location, he can’t take his reviews with him, nor can he have the reviews specifically about him removed from the previous location. This is a great point about personal branding. If you want to create a personal brand for your service, be sure to create or claim a listing for yourself rather than your employer or location. As Yelp expands beyond simple restaurants and starts focusing equally on service, this will be more of an issue and taint the reviews. If a bunch of reviews rave about a certain MD at a clinic, and the doctor leaves, are those reviews valid? Not if they are about that doctor.

Since the crowd was polite, and I tend to have strong opinions (I know, shocking for anyone that knows me — grrr), I brought up issues with the dreaded filter. The group asked some basic questions about what gets filtered and why and the filter was presented as this simple tool that acts as a safeguard against fraud. However it’s much more complex and controversial than that and I was direct in my opinions and objections to it.

First I mentioned that while Yelp CEO claims that 20% of reviews are filtered, my experiences are in the 70% range. Of course, since the filter is a trade secret so they couldn’t comment as to why. I mentioned my concerns that one reason my client reviews are getting filtered is that I’m friends with many of them on Facebook and thus a violation of Yelp’s conflict of interest policy. As I mentioned in this blog post you can’t be friends with people that evaluate your business nor can you be in a business group such as the Chamber of commerce with them. I was told by Darnell this policy isn’t about Facebook friends however the evidence does speak for itself and while that might be his interpretation, it is not the written policy of Facebook. He mentioned this was about “referral rings” in which a group of businesses agree to review each other. I mentioned why this would be prohibited if indeed they were customers of each other and was referred to it being a violation.

I moved on to a question about my listing: that on a mobile phone I do not show up under “Computer repair in Lawrence, KS” while a former competitor at my same location does show up. Afterwards, Darnell was very helpful and logged into my account and noticed that Yelp had my map marker wrong and showed me over a mile away. That’s weird because other businesses at that same location didn’t have this problem. Fixing that Yelp error was absolutely worth my time at the town hall.

However, not satisfied with my lack of an answer regarding my abnormally high filter rate, I asked a very pointed question the claim of 20% is completely unverified since the mechanics of the review filter are secret. Since I mentioned I was a Yelp investor, I was referred to the fact this 20% is in their S-1 filings which are audited. I thought this unusual info to find such info in that document but since it had been a while since I read that report I assumed he was correct and I moved on.

I shouldn’t have.

In fact, not only does the S-1 report not mention the percentage of reviews but in fact mentions how the mechanics of the review filter put Yelp at risk. Here’s that portion of the S-1 report

While we attempt to filter or remove content that may be offensive, biased, unreliable or otherwise unhelpful, we cannot guarantee the effectiveness or adequacy of these efforts. If we fail to filter or remove a significant amount of content that is biased, unreliable, or otherwise unhelpful, or if we mistakenly filter or remove a significant amount of valuable content, our reputation and brand may be harmed, users may stop using our products and our business and results of operations could be adversely affected.

I agree. This filter is a major risk to not only Yelp but other businesses. Its mechanics are indeed flawed as evidence by my listings and at these Town Hall. Yelp needs to be called to task for these problems because in fact these aren’t “real reviews” but in fact a computerized approximation, because I know real people with real reviews (including myself) who write reviews that nobody will ever see.

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