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Why Yelp Reviews Are Of Little Value

Like any company operating in today’s world, internet reviews are an increasingly important aspect of doing business.  Many consumer review websites have been created (some free, others charge a membership fee) to help consumers make informed decisions about businesses, but are these sites reliable sources of information?  A prominent “free” review site (with paid sponsors) is Yelp which is increasingly ranking higher and higher in internet searches for any number of different services.

Yelp’s reviews are, in our opinion, untrustworthy and lack credibility when it comes to the plumbing and heating industry.  Yelp reviews may be of help to consumers in other business areas but in our industry we believe they are of little or no value.  We base this belief on two major facts with which we have first hand experience:

1.    The review’s posted on Yelp are anonymous; and
2.    Yelp’s software  “filters” reviews into those that are on the first page and those that are “not recommended” reviews (these not recommended reviews can only be accessed through a separate link).

People Posting Negative Reviews Are Seldom Our Customers

Our biggest problem with so many of the negative reviews posted on Yelp  is verifying whether the poster is even one of our customers.  We do not have this problem with positive reviews because those reviews typically mention the name of the technician and we can quickly verify whether the poster is a customer by checking our daily dispatch log to match a name and city.  We have confirmed that all of the positive posts on the first page of Yelp since 2011 are, in fact, posted by one of our customers.  On the other hand, in the past 3 years, it is a very small percentage of negative posts on Yelp’s first page that we have been able to confirm are from our customers.  That is why in many of our responses to negative reviews on Yelp we ask the person to provide us with the job number off of our invoice so we can confirm if they are in fact a customer of ours.  You will notice that the majority of negative first page postings never reply to provide us with their invoice number.  You will also notice that very few 5 star reviews for our company appear on the first page (more on that later).

So why would someone who is not our customer post a negative review?  Anonymity given by Yelp to the posters.  Anonymity allows competitors and paid reviewers to post fictional reviews.  If you click on the picture box for anyone posting on Yelp, you will find out information about that person as to the total number of posts on Yelp by that person.  You can also look at the other reviews they have previously posted on Yelp.  A close look at some of these people and their reviews shows a pattern of a number of reviews of businesses that are dated within a close period of time and also reviewing  businesses are that are located in widely varying geographic locations on the same posting date.  It could be coincidence or attributed to the poster simply posting the reviews at the same time but given the anonymity of the poster, there is no way to exclude the possibility that a competitor or someone has paid a third party for the positive reviews as well as the negative reviews on Yelp.

Here’s an excerpt from Bloomberg Business Week’s Technology Section, August 13, 2013 and its article “Why Yelp Will Never Be Rid Of Phony Reviews”:

Last October, Yelp flagged the pages of a handful of businesses it caught soliciting positive reviews on such sites as Craigslist and Freelancer. Since then, the company has started busting restaurants that trade discounts for positive reviews and watching for IP addresses that generate tons of glowing feedback. If Yelp concludes that a restaurant is playing dirty, it adorns the offender’s page with a scarlet letter of sorts. Eateries that scrub their listings and work themselves back into Yelp’s good graces can get the alert taken down after 90 days.
So far, the company says it’s tagged more than 150 businesses, a tiny sliver of its listings. The number of businesses flagged isn’t just fewer than the number of dive bars listed in New York, it’s fewer than the number of pet-related businesses in Honolulu.
Instead, the company uses an algorithm to watch for suspicious patterns of behavior and relegates roughly 20 percent of its reviews to less-visible parts of the site. (The IP monitoring is another such automated tool, said a company spokesperson.) Yelp’s 108 million users supplement that system for free.
While Yelp doesn’t break out how much it spends on combating phony reviews, in regulatory filings it has described credibility maintenance as a major risk in its business model. The company has to worry about this from the other side, too; it regularly receives complaints about burying legitimate reviews caught in its algorithm’s dragnet.

The Attorney General for the State of New York issued a press release in 2013 detailing the results of a 2 year investigation into companies selling fake reviews:

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today announced that 19 companies had agreed to cease their practice of writing fake online reviews for businesses and to pay more than $350,000 in penalties. “Operation Clean Turf,” a year-long undercover investigation into the reputation management industry, the manipulation of consumer-review websites, and the practice of astroturfing, found that companies had flooded the Internet with fake consumer reviews on websites such as Yelp, Google Local, and CitySearch. In the course of the investigation, the Attorney General’s office found that many of these companies used techniques to hide their identities, such as creating fake online profiles on consumer review websites and paying freelance writers from as far away as the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe for $1 to $10 per review. By producing fake reviews, these companies violated multiple state laws against false advertising and engaged in illegal and deceptive business practices.

“Consumers rely on reviews from their peers to make daily purchasing decisions on anything from food and clothing to recreation and sightseeing,” Attorney General Schneiderman said. “This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution. And companies that continue to engage in these practices should take note: “Astroturfing” is the 21st century’s version of false advertising, and prosecutors have many tools at their disposal to put an end to it.”

Yelp’s Software Filtering System

Reviews posted to Yelp fall into one of two categories:  positive, neutral and negative reviews posted on the main page for the business and all other reviews that are “not recommended”.    In the past the “not recommended” reviews displayed all of the positive and negative reviews in chronological order of posting.  In the last month or so, the not recommended reviews have been reorganized and are sorted from one star to five star.  Unfortunately, the one star not recommended reviews are listed first and it’s not until you get about 12 pages into the not recommended reviews related to our company that the five star not recommended reviews appear (and then there are another 4 pages of 5 star not recommended reviews for our company that follow).  Yelp does not advise the user of this fact so it appears on our Yelp review page that we have an inordinate number of one star posts (even though these posts are “not recommended”
One of the explanations from Yelp on their website about their software that filters out reviews into the “not recommended reviews” is:

•    Why would a review not be recommended?
There are a number of reasons why a review might not be recommended. For example, the review might have been posted by a less established user, or it may seem like an unhelpful rant or rave. Some of these reviews are fakes (like the ones we see originating from the same computer) and some suggest a bias (like the ones written by a friend of the business owner), but many are real reviews from real customers who we just don’t know much about and therefore can’t recommend.

The anonymity, combined with a bias towards postings by “established” users (people who post frequently), encourages the abuse of Yelp’s own system:  the more an unreliable unconfirmed source posts reviews, the more credibility they are given by Yelp.  Frequent posters to Yelp gain “elite” status which supposedly means their reviews are very credible.  By failing to confirm the identity of a poster “real reviews from real customers who we just don’t know much about” . . . end up being not recommended.  So because Yelp does not take the simple step of confirming someone is a customer (because it only allows anonymous postings), what kind of credibility do any of the reviews posted on Yelp have?  If a company can hire someone to use multiple computers to post multiple positive reviews about their company and multiple negative reviews about competitor companies, do the reviews have any meaning or value?
Thankfully a large percentage of our customers are repeat customers who contact us directly or if they bother to research online review websites they recognize the reviews are unreliable and not credible.

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