Yelp’s Trust Problem

Filed in Local Search by Matt McGee on March 12, 2010 11 Comments

yelp-logoClickZ is running an article today about Yelp’s current legal troubles. I’m quoted in the article (at the end) and I come across as a staunch defender of Yelp.

While I do admire the loyalty they’ve built up amongst users, I’m actually more in the middle than the article portrays. I really believe Yelp needs to improve its overall messaging to small business owners if it wants to gain wider adoption and acceptance as a marketing channel. And, as I posited in my earlier post on Yelp this week, I definitely wonder if “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” applies to Yelp. It very well could.

But aside from how I feel about Yelp, the bigger issue is the impact of these legal troubles and claims on Yelp’s trust. The ClickZ piece gets into that a bit, but I think this post by Mike Blumenthal today says a lot more about it. Mike interviews a small business owner about reviews, and here’s what the business owner says about Yelp:

We avoid them like the black plague. You can find a lot of articles on the subject so I won’t get on a soap box…but we’ve had around 30 satisfied customers post positive reviews on Yelp and none of them posted to our profile. When we asked why we were told that the customer has to be an “active Yelp user” or the reviews will not show up. When we asked what constitutes an “active Yelp user” we were told that formula was proprietary and confidential. Of course, this didn’t stop them from making a sales call and offering us assistance in getting more positive reviews on our account. After doing some research and realizing this was a much bigger problem with other business owners, and that they were involved in a class action lawsuit for similar accusations, we just decided to avoid them all together.

I’m guessing that attitude is more widespread than we think. And it speaks to one of Yelp’s fundamental flaws: The mysterious algorithm has a natural bias against first-time reviewers. It’s the old job search catch-22 — you need experience to get a job, but you can’t get experience if no one will hire you.

How can Yelp reach its full potential if it regularly punishes new users by not posting their reviews? There’s a trust problem here with small business owners who see real reviews from real people being zapped from the site, and from people who’d like to become regular users, but have a bad experience when their first taste of Yelp is essentially, “We don’t care what you have to say.”

Comments (11)

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  1. MiriamEllis says:

    Agree with you, Matt, that Yelp has developed a great product, but news, rumors and hearsay about them have been bad for as long as they’ve been around. Starting with the notion that they paid people to leave the initial reviews that made up their website and then, over the past couple of years, allegations of extortion…it just doesn’t leave me with a yummy taste in my mouth about Yelp.

    What I find especially tough is that, as with Google, SMBs find themselves being rolled over juggernaut-fashion because Yelp is so large and not being held accountable for any policy they choose to make, no matter how it may affect business owners and their customers. This lack of accountability and transparency seems to be becoming inseparable from large-scale Interent-based operations and, while it mimics the off-line world, it’s still disheartening in a media I hoped might have a second chance to do things differently.

    Good post, Matt!

  2. Tom Crandall says:


    You nailed the key issue when you cite the “mysterious algorithm has a natural bias against first-time reviewers.” While Yelp’s intentions are in the right place, this obstacle alienates local businesses and may lead to their demise as local businesses become more proactive in their local online visibility.

    I have been a great admirer of Yelp but it is no longer a directory I advise clients to recommend to their customers to provide reviews–specifically because of their “frequent reviewer” algorithm.

    While I hear (third person) some unflattering things from SMB’s about Yelp sales tactics from time to time, I hear much more venting about IYP’s and a few other interactive directories.

  3. Don Campbell says:

    Great article Matt.

    This is precisely why we don’t advise businesses to ask their clients for reviews on Yelp – Yelp frequently just removes them based on the mysterious algorithm you mention.

    Yelp can help businesses but I’ve seen several businesses be hurt by them as well. If your business is not the right type, you probably don’t get a lot of Yelp reviews. (Restaurants and Shopping make up 52% of Yelp reviews.)

    So if a business in the wrong industry gets a bad review, they can’t even get their best customers to help them, because if they are not avid “Yelpers” their reviews will just be removed.

    I feel like Yelp needs to have a better interface with the business owners because of the effect they can have on them. Many businesses are left frustrated, and this deteriorates their trust in Yelp.

  4. irina says:

    Yelp can no longer be trusted. The reviews in are manipulated to business owners to buy adwertising

  5. John Russo says:

    I DO NOT trust YELP. I recently learned about their “filter” rule and then found all the negative reviews of a restaurant on a hidden page. Also learned all these hidden reviews are not considered in the overall review-based rating given to the business.

  6. Bluecat says:

    First hand experience. Yelp removed many of my reviews then sent me some sort of notice after. But those reviews took me a lot of time to do so I will never place a review there again if they can pick and choose what is published and remove what they desire. I suspect they are not open or honest in what they do.

  7. Michelle B. says:

    I am a member of the Yelp Elite Squad. The “Elite Squad” is for active members who continually write good, informative reviews. I am 100% truthful and no one pays me. Trust me, I wish they did, I can certainly use the money! Even if I was paid I would STILL write truthful reviews. No one benefits from a lie. If I go to a restaurant and I see a cockroach, you bet I am going to write about it! The health department makes it too easy for some of these restaurant owners to just skirt by when truthfully they should not even be operating in the first place! I know first hand from a former employer. I have not and will not write a review for that place because of a confidentiality agreement I signed my first day of work there. Still, I will make sure that I share my info so that other people do not have to suffer. Most of my reviews are very positive. Business owners have nothing to worry about if they provide good service, and a good product. My negative reviews have always been counted, and so have my positive reviews. I know nothing about a “filter” system. There is a fine line as far as what is acceptable. Some people can be down right vicious! Yelp encouranges its members to write informative and uplifting reviews. If you read the requirements of “Elite Status” you can find that information.

  8. James Chun says:

    If it were an issue of filtering fake reviews. It would be fine so long as it was accurate. However the issue is that Yelp selects to filter positive reviews while promoting the negative reviews. It just destroys all credibility. However, the average consumer is completely unaware of this filtering system. Even if yelp offers consumers to view the filtered reviews, it is both inconspicuous and inconvenient to get to them.

    • Matt McGee says:

      James – I’m not a big fan of how Yelp deals with reviews, and I’ve shared my thoughts on that many times on this blog. BUT … you’re not correct when you say that Yelp “selects to filter positive reviews.”

      Yelp’s algorithm is biased against 1st-time reviews/reviewers — people who’ve never written a review before. Doesn’t matter if it’s a good or bad review, it only matters how many reviews you’ve written, how long you’ve had a Yelp account, etc. Those are signs of trust. If you come to Yelp, setup a new account and leave your first review, that review is probably not gonna make the grade. And, the reality of the situation is that, in most cases, people who do that are leaving positive reviews.

      It’s not that Yelp selects to filter positive reviews, it’s that the more common behavior is that people leaving their first review will be writing a positive one — often at the request of the business itself, which is also frowned upon.

  9. Tph says:


    What you say is Incorrect. We have a one star review where the reviewer signed up to leave it and posted nothing since. The review is only five words. We have six five star reviews filtered. We have 2 two star reviews (because *gasp* CAB Angus ground beef is juicy)

    Only the negative views are visible and Yelp intentionally makes it extremely difficult to view filtered reviews.

    Our food sales are up 45% since we opened on the back of word of mouth. Yelp promotes negative posts because negativity sells to the American public.

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