A Review of Yelp Reviews: Content Ownership and Search Result Bias

Computer Services Reviews on Yelp

Early on in my career as a computer service professional, I realized the importance of referrals and word-of-mouth advertising. So I decided to list my business on several review sites in order to gain positive reviews and increased business.

y-2

A review site is a website on which users can write and read about people, businesses, products, or services. Yelp.com is a popular review site that offers users a convenient way to seek out new and highly-rated restaurants, write a review on their favorite (or not so favorite) business, or create their own business page.

Consumers and business owners alike love review sites, because they all provide a “word-of-mouth” sense of community and trustworthiness. Yelp’s slogan “Real People. Real Reviews ®” embodies this attitude, and the company’s commitment to providing “real reviews” is so strong that it only scores 3 out of 5 stars: on its own website!

But how can Yelp allow people to use its service for free? How do review sites stay in business?

Paying For and Filtering Reviews

Yelp.com, like many review sites, is supported by advertising. And as a popular site (#170 in Alexa.com worldwide rankings at the time of this writing), Yelp.com may charge a considerable fee to allow businesses to advertise with them.

However, critics of the review company say that it unfairly gives its biggest advertisers a higher ranking in search results, or that it punishes and decreases the rankings of businesses that refuse to purchase Yelp ads. Spokespeople from Yelp have repeatedly denied these allegations, responding that the company does everything it can to ensure that the reviews on its site remain real and unbiased.

To help address these credibility problems, the company has instituted a review “filter”: a computer program which determines if a review is legitimate and thus displayed in search results, or suspected as a fake and then filtered out. The filter periodically re-evaluates each review, so that previously un-filtered reviews may disappear, and old filtered reviews may come back.

Silverleaf Computer Services – Filtered!

filtered-reviews-2

So I listed my business on Yelp, and clients have written reviews for me. Now, when a person looking for “computer services” near “van nuys” types these terms into Yelp’s search engine, they may find my business near the top. They can click the link to read reviews about the business, where currently only 3 of a total 11 reviews are displayed. One can still find these filtered reviews, but they do not count towards the overall rating.

The majority of reviews for Silverleaf Computer Services weren’t always filtered out: in fact, the filtering soon began after a phone call I received one day. “Billy” from the Yelp Ad Department called to comment on how great my business was doing in search results. He also wanted to know if I felt that my business benefited from being in Yelp (which it has), and asked if I’d be interested in advertising with them.

I politely declined.

Content Ownership and Search Result Bias

I’m not going to bash Yelp.com for unfairly filtering my reviews as punishment for not buying ads. On the contrary, I’ve come to understand that even though these reviews were written to help my business, they are part of an online community that Yelp owns and maintains, and are not “my” reviews.

All review content (though user-generated) effectively becomes the property of the website on which it is written. Yelp, or any ad-driven site, may provide or deny access to its own content as it sees fit: if the site wants to use this valuable content as incentive for advertisers, then it may do so as a viable marketing strategy.

But people who rely on review sites (or any search engine for that matter) for information should realize that these websites are ad-driven, and are NOT free of bias. And while search engines are powerful information-finding tools and do a good job of providing relevant information, search engine results should be taken with a grain of salt because any company that gathers, organizes, and ultimately controls what information is displayed on the Web also has the power to NOT display certain information.

In conclusion, do not simply rely on companies like Yelp or Google to provide only “good” information while filtering out the “bad.” Such reliance can leave you open to manipulation by advertisers, or worse, information filtering and censorship.

1 thought on “A Review of Yelp Reviews: Content Ownership and Search Result Bias

  1. Pingback: Customer Relationship Management: A Social Network in a Box | Silverleaf Computer Services

Comments are closed.