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Yelp Founder Says "No Extortion — Just a Misunderstood Algorithm" 120

Posted by timothy
from the trust-us-no-really dept.
Early last year, a story in the East Bay Express reported that review site Yelp's ad sales force was using hardball tactics that amount to extortion — essentially, suggesting that negative reviews would remain prominent on the Yelp page for a particular restaurant or other business, unless the business bought advertising through Yelp, in which case Yelp could "do something" about the negative reviews. In a recent interview with the New York Times (the questions seem rather softball, but they do address this issue), Yelp co-founder Jeremy Stoppelman says it just isn't so, and blames unhappiness by business owners with the review site on the site's "automated and algorithmic" review-filtering system, which he describes as "counterintuitive." Stoppelman also says that Yelp's advertising salesmen have no connection to that filtering system, which doesn't quite answer the question of whether the salesmen claimed to be able to influence the reviews displayed, as some business owners allege. Updated 22:09 GMT by timothy: As reader AKMask points out below (now corrected above), that's the East Bay Express, rather than the East Bay Examiner.
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Yelp Founder Says "No Extortion — Just a Misunderstood Algorithm"

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  • maybe (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 27, 2010 @05:02PM (#31642566)

    Sales people are liers. Maybe thats why.

  • by WrongSizeGlass (838941) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @05:03PM (#31642576)
    Sure it is ... the businesses they were extorting misunderstood that their voluntary participation was optional.

    Advances in technology, such as our precious intertubes, will always bring advances in criminal activity. I hope no one hears them yelp as they go out of business when their next round of venture capital begging fails miserably. If they want to deal on business' reputations they'll need one of their own.
  • Re:Sham (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mellon (7048) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @05:07PM (#31642626) Homepage

    You might want to reconsider that. My wife and I use Yelp on the iPhone as one of our primary sources of information on how to get stuff we need when we're on the road. If you're not in Yelp, you're probably missing a lot of walk-in opportunities. If you're doing well on local advertising and reputation, great, but if you'd like to have more new customers, Yelp is actually a good way to make it happen.

    The problem with services like Yelp is getting good information out of them--unfortunately, the main motivation people have for writing reviews on the web is that they are pissed off, and so that tends to work against any place that ever has a pissed off customer, which is pretty much every place. So we tend to look for patterns in the bad reviews to see what they tell us, and also patterns in the good reviews to make sure they're not fake. It's worked out pretty well for us.

  • Re:Sham (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DogDude (805747) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @05:11PM (#31642660) Homepage
    I'm betting that most people who are looking for reviews online are just going to use Google. It's free and ubiquitous.

    Regardless, online reviews are pretty pointless. They're anonymous and easily gamed by anybody on the planet. They're about as reliable as bathroom stall graffiti.
  • by WrongSizeGlass (838941) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @05:22PM (#31642748)
    The co-founder of Yelpy McScumbags denies they were acting illegally? What else would you expect him to say, "Yes, we were committing extortion, but we needed to generate more advertising, but hard work & ethical business practices just weren't getting us as much revenue as we wanted"?

    Read the original stories about Yelp's tactics and practices. I can only hope they end up with both civil judgements and criminal convictions.
  • by jim_v2000 (818799) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @05:27PM (#31642800)
    Salespeople are the biggest fuck-ups you'll ever work with. They always make all kinds of bullshit claims about a product that you, if you the technician, will get to correct and thus take the wrath of the customer. I worked in a tech support call center a few years ago and I'd always get two or three calls each day where the customer would complain that the sales person told him that the program did X and Y, but he couldn't make it do X and Y. I would then inform him that he was misinformed and the program really did not do X and Y, and then I'd sit through a barrage of abuse directed at the company.
  • by Sockatume (732728) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @06:19PM (#31643138)

    I expect a more nuanced response to his denial. One that might, perhaps, refute it. As it stands that comment could refer to any company except for the side-splitting double meaning of "yelp" and one word from the article title, suggesting that you have perhaps put a rash need to appear witty above the more significant issue of fraud versus innuendo and human pattern-matching.

  • Re:Sham (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Hatta (162192) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @06:27PM (#31643202) Journal

    Regardless, online reviews are pretty pointless. They're anonymous and easily gamed by anybody on the planet. They're about as reliable as bathroom stall graffiti.

    Do you have a better option for someone just passing through who just wants a nice place to eat? The only alternative I'm aware of is the back of the phone book. With online reviews, I can check a few sites and mostly figure out whether it's the kind of place I'm going to like. Back of the phonebook is a total crapshoot.

  • by nfc_Death (915751) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @06:35PM (#31643260)
    That Times story is incredibly self serving for 'Yelp'. The questions asked are phrased in ways so that the answer can only be positive to or about 'Yelp'. Furthermore this reads more like an informational advertisement than actual reporting. Im kinda disappointed that I wasted my time reading the f***ing article, since it offered no information whatsoever about why their salesmen have had the finger pointed at them, nor does it even directly inquire what their 'sales' campaign actually involves. BS story IMHO
  • by 10101001 10101001 (732688) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @06:37PM (#31643268) Journal

    When people know too much about the algorithm, they can game it.

    Same reason why credit scoring company wont release their algorithms... Well, they might have further economic motives for that, but still if I knew exactly how the algorithm for my credit score worked, I could certainly dramatically improve my credit without doing anything that actually show I'm credit worthy...

    The fundamental problem is that such algorithms are based on taking a small bit of information and extrapolating a result from it. It's fundamentally the reason why benchmarks are often both gamed and a very bad way of actually understanding the products being measured. The answer to the problem has consistently been shown to be not to withhold information about the way a benchmark is made, since invariably people will find a way to reverse engineer the algorithm and game it anyways; the answer is to further refine the benchmark to take more and more samples until the point that even if the benchmark is incomplete at measuring things, anything that tried to game the benchmark would still be very close to meeting what the benchmark is meant to represent.

    AFAIK, that's primarily what Google has done with the page ranking algorithm. If Yelp is really worried about having a good review system, they should focus less on trying to hide how their algorithm works and more on improving their algorithm to guarantee it works. In the end, they'll remain ahead of any competitors so long as they can maintain a consistent lead on quality through such efforts. Any other mindset really is based in a belief that one has some sort of monopoly that can't be replaced. It's one of the reasons why complacent middle management, which is primarily a byproduct of large corporations, kills most corporate monopolies.

  • Re:Sham (Score:4, Insightful)

    by lul_wat (1623489) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @08:25PM (#31643816)
    I walk up to a local person and ask them what they would recommend. If it doesn't sound appealing then I ask the next local. It's not rocket science but it might be a bit of a leap. Most people are happy to tell you as you've asked their opinion on something and it boosts their ego to think they are a subject matter expert (which they are in this case as you know flat zero about the local food)

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