Review of Billion Dollar Bully AKA Don’t Trust Yelp

As a consumer, I love Yelp to help me find new places to eat and shop.  Reviews are essential to help consumers buy stuff.  As with “fake news,” you always need to consider the source and bias.  When I’m reading a review, I think that some of the reviews could be people with an ax to grind, or people downright paid for the review.  

Back in 2013, I wrote, “Why Yelp is bad for small business.”  I stand behind everything I said then and believe it stronger than ever.  I’ll explain later, but the reason I’m revisiting the issue is a documentary came out last month called “Billion Dollar Bully.

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Billion Dollar Bully:  Overview

This documentary was years in the making, partially due to funding.  They had a crowdsourced campaign.  I contributed to the campaign but did so anonymously out of fear.  At the end of the movie, the producers listed all the supporters and explained that many contributed anonymously out of fear.

If you’re looking for a seat-of-the-pants thriller, this isn’t the movie for you.  The target here is small business owners, but as a consumer, you might want to watch it as well.  It’s truly a David and Goliath story.  That’s where the name comes from.  This publicly traded multinational behemoth is harming locally owned and operating businesses.  Most of the complaints in the movie are things I’ve brought up in the past. Other allegations in the movie I don’t think are fair.

Unfair Complaint: Yelp Harasses Business Owners

I’d love to live in a world where people only contact you when you need a product or service.  If you’re not interested, the salesperson moves onto another prospect and never calls you again.  I’d also like to win the lottery.  

My father was in sales. I understand the importance of cold calling and commission.  ABC:  always be closing.  Sure, salespeople at Yelp, just like every company, don’t take no for an answer.  As a business owner, I got hounded by the Yellow Pages.  I eventually had to block their numbers on my mobile phone and go into my server and block them from sending me emails.

For those business owners who then signed up because Yelp wouldn’t stop harassing them, I have little sympathy.  If it weren’t Yelp, it would have been someone else.  My bet:  yellow pages.  Are they even still around?  

Unfair Complaint:  Businesses Or Locations Should Be Able to Opt Out

If you’re a business and serve the public, there is no expectation of privacy from search engines.  Unlike in Europe, people in the United States don’t have a right to be forgotten.  This directory includes not just businesses, but any location that might deal with customers.  Billion Dollar Bully points out that national monuments and museums get reviews.  That might seem weird at first glance, but if you’re planning a vacation, it’s useful information.  As a traveler, I’d be more likely to check Trip Advisor for something like that.  

Requiring a business to opt-in to Yelp’s Terms of Service to respond to a review doesn’t seem too difficult either.  I can’t walk into a baseball game without agreeing to the terms of the ticket on the back.  You don’t have to respond to Yelp reviews.  While it’s important to do so, Yelp isn’t the only game in town.  Google and Trip Advisor have nearly identical rules.

Fair Complaint:  Yelp Salespeople Oversell The Ability to Manipulate Reviews

One of the most common complaints about Yelp is that they manipulate which reviews are shown and which are hidden based on whether you do business with them.  I don’t believe that.  I think that’s a conspiracy theory.  This complaint is due to a logical fallacy of correlation indicates causation.  Someone gets a call from a Yelp rep, and positive reviews disappear when the small business says no.  When someone advertises and sees their positive reviews increase and negative reviews decrease, they assume it’s because of the ads.

In reality, I think most of those situations are random luck.  If I wear my special socks during a KU basketball game and they win, it must have been my socks.  Not quite.  I bet though I could find a dozen people who were a particular type of sock and KU wins a basketball game, so I could claim the socks are magical.  Considering how many businesses advertise on Yelp along with how many salespeople Yelp employees, if it truly were happening, it would be more widespread?  Why don’t we have hard data indicating the relationship between ad sales and reviews?  Even the FTC complaints lack the hard numbers.

Fair Complaint: Commissioned Sales People Lie and Conspire to Make A Sale

I’ve dealt with not just Yelp salespeople, but other companies that offer review services.  These salespeople all claim that by advertising, you’ll increase positive reviews and decrease negative reviews.  Taken at face value that’s true.  The more you advertise, the more likely people are to leave reviews.  Those reviews will be favorable if you’re doing a good job.  The negative reviews then appear to be outliers.  Someone leaving a negative review is less likely to do so if they see an overwhelming number of positive reviews.  They’re likely to chalk up one bad experience to an anomaly rather than a pattern.  

Since these Yelp salespeople don’t get paid unless they make a sale, they have an incentive to lie.  They’ll use that conspiracy theory to their advantage.  If they make the sale based on a lie, that’s not their problem.  You’ll have to prove it.  Now in the movie, they have some excellent examples of Yelp employees that were recorded and lost their job based on a lie.

Fair Complaint: Reviews Can Be Manipulated With the Right Incentives

In that movie, business owners gave examples of people posting negative reviews.  This attack might be from a disgruntled employee or Yelp salesperson.  Every review system faces that problem.  People have a bias.  A Yelp salesperson can’t click a button and make a bunch of reviews appear on your business page.

That’s not true.  Salespeople do have that control, albeit indirectly.

Anyone can leave a review on Yelp.  All you need is an email address or a Facebook account.  In case you didn’t know, anyone can have multiple email accounts.  Some people (gasp!) lie on the internet about who they are.

Could a Yelp salesperson have a dozen Yelp accounts and leave reviews in order to get a sale?  Absolutely?  Could they pay a “review farm” offshore to do this?  Absolutely?  Would it be worth their time or money to make the sale and put food on their table?  Absolutely?

Not Covered: Algorithms Lie and Can Be Manipulated

Since I wrote the article in 2013, algorithms became big news.  We saw Russia manipulate our election in 2016.  They did this by gaming social media.  They knew how to place the right words out there to get people to act.  Hate speech continues to be a problem on YouTube, and Amazon reviews are always gamed.

Yelp won’t publish or comment on the details about their algorithm, just that it’s continuously updated.  Just like search engine optimization, algorithms can be gamed to provide unfair advantages if you know the rules.

I’m entirely convinced commissions based Yelp salespeople often have inside tracks on the algorithms.  Amazon employees have been caught selling secrets of their system, and I’m sure Yelp employees do the same.  

Again, I don’t believe every salesperson at Yelp has magic on and off switch for reviews.  They can, with the right skills and financial incentives, game the algorithm to make it appear they have control to get the sale.

As a small business owner, it’s the same outcome.  If you don’t advertise with Yelp, your reviews are no longer organic.  You’ve been bullied into making the sale.

Scandalous Advertising Practices by Yelp

The movie explains how Yelp’s ad system shouldn’t be trusted. The ads they place don’t bring in business.  Unlike Facebook or Google, you have no control regarding the keywords or audience Yelp ads appear in.  Yelp will place ads to meet a quota, rather than give you qualified referrals.

Thank you Billion Dollar Bully for pointing that out.  Since I’ve never advertised willingly with Yelp, I didn’t know this.  After watching the movie, I started paying attention.

Within a few minutes of searching, I saw exactly what they were talking about.  I opened Yelp in a “private” session in my browser on Lawrence Kansas.  That means that Yelp only knew where I was but nothing else.  They couldn’t look at my search history or anything about me.

After searching computer repair Lawrence Kansas this ad for home repair came up.  I felt terrible for the company that paid for that ad to appear.  That has nothing to do with repair, and their money was utterly wasted.  

Yelp Charged Me For Advertising Without My Consent and Tried to Ruin my Credit

When I started doing service calls in Kansas City, I made a Yelp listing for it.  I know that’s important for SEO value as well as showing up on Apple Maps.  Of course, Yelp salespeople contacted me.  Of course, they were aggressive and wouldn’t take no for an answer.  That didn’t bother me.  I just ignored them and blocked the call.

About a month after that, I got a bill for a few hundred dollars for Yelp advertising.  What was interesting was not only did I not advertise with them, I didn’t get any calls claiming they were from Yelp.  In fact, I got no calls on the Kansas City number.  I created the number shortly before putting it on Yelp and Google, so that didn’t surprise me.  

According to Yelp collections, I signed up for an ad.  After less than a month or advertising, I racked up a bill for over $500. New accounts had a coupon for $400, so I was only required to pay the difference.  The problem was “my” credit card rejected the charge.

After much back and forth, I found out it was a prepaid card that had no value.  You see you need to have a card on file to start running ads, but they don’t verify if the card is in your name or do a hold as a hotel or gas station would.  

Yelp collections claimed that I somehow knew this and essentially stole ads from the company.  They showed me someone logged into my account and agreed to the terms and conditions of advertising.  To save my credit, I decided to pay.

While I’ll never know what happened, it seems obvious to me an overzealous salesperson logged into my account and set up advertising.  Yelp employees do have access to your account as Billion Dollar Bully pointed out.  

The kicker:  I didn’t get a single call from a month of authorized advertising. Seeing how targeting is done (or done wrong), I’m not surprised.

Yelp Elite:  The People That Break “Real Reviews by Real People”

Billion Dollar Bully makes fun of the Yelp Elite.  I’ve gone to Yelp Elite parties.  They’re fun, and Kansas City has had a great series of community managers.  They’re not the snobbish people that South Park portrays.  

The only power they have is the ability to change the way their reviews appear.  The algorithm always allows their reviews through.  That means if they’re an ex-employee of a business, the review isn’t automatically censored.  If they were dating the bartender and got stood up for a date, they can leave a negative review and not have it filtered out.  

Yelp Elites are like Neo in the Matrix.  They have the power to transcend the construct.  They are immune to how Yelp prevents fraud.  But you know what, they’re human.  They can be bribed to leave a good or bad review.  They allow emotion sometimes to overcome logic.  Billion Dollar Bully pointed out that a small group of Elite’s violate the rules to enrich themselves.

Not Covered: Yelp Engages in Discrimination and Stereotyping

Since I wrote my article, the rules about Yelp Elite haven’t changed.  They can’t be affiliated with any business or even be married to someone affiliated with a business. Billion Dollar Bully didn’t cover this fact, and that’s a shame.  I think it’s the biggest flaw at Yelp.

Because Yelp Elites can’t be involved or married to anyone that manages any aspect of any business, they are of a very specific demographic.  They’re unlikely to be older because as you move along in your career, you often become a manager or are married to one.  That’s blatant age discrimination.

Yelp Elite will skew as young people who are early in their careers.  It also focuses on people that have been traditionally left out of management.

Not Covered: Yelp  Breaks Wisdom of Crowds, Unlike Google Or Amazon

Billion Dollar Bully missed this concept entirely, but it’s too dull for a movie, so I understand why they left it out.

The “Wisdom of Crowds” relies on the concept that a group of average people will predict something better than a group of experts.  On the surface of it, Yelp seems to do that.  Because Yelp has so many reviews, the aggregate reviews should be accurate, but it isn’t.

Even Yelp’s video admits it tries only to show reviews done by experts.  If you aren’t an expert in that category, your review doesn’t show.  That breaks the whole concept of the wisdom of crowds.  Yelp’s system throws out reviews of non-experts and makes Elites experts in all areas.  If I know Thai food really well, I can become a Yelp elite.  That knowledge doesn’t make me an expert on dog-walking or chiropractors.  

If Yelp thinks a businesses has been somehow manipulating reviews, they put a warning on the business.  However, the algorithm is always manipulating which reviews are seen.  In the wisdom of crowds, these manipulated reviews wouldn’t matter.  Since Yelp breaks algorithm breaks that rule, it makes it more likely to incorrectly slap a fraud warning on a business.  It violated Wisdom of Crowds again.

The Solution:  Community Policing By Yelp Elites and Members

Billion Dollar Bully focused on the negative aspects of Yelp but offered little solution moving forward.  As a consumer, I like Yelp.  I love reading about people’s experiences.  Unlike the average consumer, I know the “not recommended” reviews exist, so I read them.

Although Yelp is a big company, Google is bigger.  Google was based on “wisdom of crowds” since every click you make is a vote as to the proper search result.  I think it’s adorable Yelp thinks it wrote an AI that can filter reviews better than Google.   If small businesses want to fight Yelp, they should sue not based on review manipulation, but false advertising.  These aren’t real reviews by real people.  An algorithm blocks reviews by certain real people.  “Reviews manipulated by a secret AI” doesn’t sound right.  Skynet isn’t good at finding great coffee.

Instead, why not allow “the crowd” to determine what’s real or not?   Currently, reviews can be flagged by Yelp members, just like on Amazon on Google.  Someone at Yelp decides if that review should appear.  I’ve flagged reviews before as a member.  

Instead of having Yelp’s algorithm hide reviews, these reviews should be approved by Yelp Elite members by a vote.  That’s how Google handles changes.  When a member of Google’s community flags something, majority rules on votes.  For Yelp, the algorithm could alert the local Yelp Elite community of a potential problem.  They can then vote to approve or hide the review.  This situation, of course, means Yelp Elite’s have to do a little more work to earn all the praise they get.  Changing the rules has the added bonus of forcing Elite’s to think about the impact they have on business after a review.  They may not be business managers (or related to one) but having to think about how a flagged review impacts a business could make them more responsible.

Watch Billion Dollar Bully if You Own a Business or Use Yelp

The movie should be required watching for any business thinking of advertising with Yelp.  You need to know what you are getting into.  I didn’t agree with the details of the movie but agree with the overall premise that Yelp is terrible for small business.

As a consumer, it will force you to think about the lives you impact when you write a review.  If you leave a review for a big franchise, you’re unlikely to make a difference.  For a small and local business, your words can elevate or destroy.  Choose wisely.

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