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Yelp cracks down on businesses that pay for good reviews

Warning signs begin popping up on Yelp when people try to access the pages of businesses that are suspected of gaming the system.

October 19, 2012|By Laura J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times
  • Yelp has flagged nine businesses which it says paid for shill reviews. Above, company co-founders Jeremy Stoppelman, left, and Russel Simmons at a cafe in San Francisco.
Yelp has flagged nine businesses which it says paid for shill reviews. Above,… (Eric Risberg, Associated…)

Yelp Inc.'s motto boasts "Real People, Real Reviews." But not always.

In an attempt to fight fake feedback, the popular review website has rolled out an alert system to warn users about businesses that it suspects has paid for positive critiques.

On Thursday, warning signs began popping up when users tried to access the pages of some businesses with five-star ratings. To read on, users must click a button that says, "Show me the reviews."

"We caught someone red-handed trying to buy reviews for this business," the red-bordered alert box says. "We weren't fooled, but wanted you to know because buying reviews not only hurts consumers, but also honest businesses who play by the rules. Check out the evidence here."

The alert will be removed after three months, Yelp said, unless there's any indication the business continues to trawl for reviews. More alerts will be posted as the company continues its investigations.

The action comes as Yelp and other online review services face increased pressure to prevent business owners from gaming a system that has significant sway over where consumers spend their money. Travel website TripAdvisor posts similar alerts on its site when it suspects fake reviews.

Websites such as Yelp, Urbanspoon and Citysearch have changed the way many consumers approach day-to-day activities: Rather than rely on word-of-mouth or traditional advertising, many people first check comments on review sites before getting a carwash, going out to eat or choosing a doctor. Businesses with higher ratings on the sites get a boost in Google rankings, which can lead to more customers.

Since it was founded in 2004, Yelp has become one of the Internet's go-to sites for reviews. Users have published more than 31 million reviews and ratings on businesses and services around the country. The better the user feedback, the higher the company ranks.

Yelp said that based on its proprietary algorithm, roughly 1 in 5 reviews are prevented from appearing on the review page because of suspicions it might be a fake. This happens more frequently to new reviewers. Elite Yelpers, who post reviews more frequently and have a special designation on their user profiles, have a better chance of having their reviews seen on business pages.

Under the new alert system, Yelp has flagged nine businesses that it says paid for shill reviews. Their pages contain links to evidence of what Yelp calls "rogue solicitations," including Craigslist postings offering $10 to $200 for a positive review.

"This pretty much breaks every rule in the book, not to mention it's just wrong to mislead consumers with fake reviews," Yelp said on its blog. "To combat this, we've put on our detective hats, tracked down these rogue solicitations and are now giving you a heads up."

One of the businesses, Bert Levi Family Jewelers in San Diego, offered $200 on Craigslist for a positive review from Elite Yelpers, according to Yelp. The store has 91 reviews, of which 84 are five stars.

A Yelp employee posing as an Elite reviewer contacted the jeweler, and in the email exchange that followed, a store employee wrote back, "Please write a positive review about having a new custom designed ring made for you, or whatever else you feel comfortable writing about." Yelp posted the email exchange online.

The woman who answered the phone at Bert Levi Family Jewelers said the owner, on the advice of his attorney, declined to comment.

laura.nelson@latimes.com

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