Friday, February 20, 2009

Glass houses and Chinese walls

Kathleen Richards has written a long behind-the-scenes look for East Bay Express at the apparent manipulation of Yelp reviews by Yelp’s advertising sales department. Suppose you’re running a restaurant with a mix of mostly positive reviews on Yelp. Then a couple of negative reviews (sometimes written by Yelp) appear at the top, and Yelp promptly calls you to tell you that for $300/month, they can move the negative reviews lower or even make them disappear. You refuse, and positive reviews start disappearing. It’s hard to imagine a business not giving in.

Becoming the dominant destination for user reviews is a huge advantage: it’s the reason I shop on Amazon and look for hotels on TripAdvisor. But there are plenty of reasons not to trust those reviews even if the site is not manipulating the reviews themselves. Businesses write positive reviews for themselves and negative reviews for their competitors. People can boost their favorite business or tear down a business they’re unhappy with, and they can do so more effectively with exaggerations or outright lies. And it’s hard to know what approach a site takes with its reviews: Costco removes most negative product reviews while Amazon leaves up reviews that are demonstrably self-promoting, but how is the casual consumer supposed to figure that out?

The approach that Yelp takes is very familiar from my experience trying to get computer products reviewed 15 years ago in computer magazines. Want the editorial side to briefly announce your product? Buy an ad. Want a positive review? Buy more ads. The ad department at one prominent computer magazine called me up to let me know that the editorial side was going to run a long and very positive review next month, and did I want to buy some ad space in the issue? When I hesitated, they said they might not be able to find the space to run the review either. The outward claim was that there was a Chinese wall between editorial and advertising, but anyone marketing computer products quickly found out otherwise.

The difference on the web is that review sites are equally reviewable. Check out Amazon on Yelp Boston, and you’ll read that “a lot of reviews are bullshit.” Useful (5). Ironic (6).

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