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

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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  • Sham (Score:2, Interesting)

    by DogDude ( 805747 ) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @04:50PM (#31642490)
    Yelp is a sham. They'll soon be swept into the dustbin of unprofitable dot-com businesses that were born out of massive venture capital and hype, but die quietly after a few years of losing money. I'm a small business owner and I don't care about Yelp. If a business owner is so out of touch with his/her business that they don't know if they have unhappy customers, then they're doomed to failure, anyway.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 27, 2010 @05:06PM (#31642614)

    liars just won't fucking quit

    you quit yelp, all your reviews disappear, hows that for magic

  • Re:This is not news. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jim_v2000 ( 818799 ) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @05:29PM (#31642802)
    I wonder if they're trying to adjust for people's tendencies to leave a negative review more often than a positive review. In other words, if you think you got screwed, you'd be more likely to post that than if everything was fine.
  • by sweatyboatman ( 457800 ) <> on Saturday March 27, 2010 @05:31PM (#31642810) Homepage Journal

    My first reaction on hearing about the lawsuits against Yelp was to lump it in with the idea of suing Google because you don't like your search position. But the more I read from the Yelp side of this, the shadier their practices seem. And this article, while pretty fluffy, did nothing to improve Yelp's standing in my eyes.

    In fact, it made me think that beyond everything else, Yelp just doesn't get it. Stoppelman sure doesn't:

    When a consumer encounters a business’s page, the reviews they’re seeing aren’t necessarily every review that’s been written about the business. It’s a selection of those reviews. It ensures that the consumer sees generally useful, trustworthy information that gives them a good idea of what to expect when they patronize that business.

    So they have an "algorithm" that randomly and seemingly arbitrarily changes what reviews are visible on a business's page. Great, I am sure there are plenty of other sites that follow a similar approach. But there's nothing in there about any kind of system to ensure that their "algorithm" isn't abusive. There's no mention of oversight, nor of feedback. It'd be interesting to hear a general outline of how this "algorithm" does its thing.

    Of course, he follows up with this:

    The more that we explain about the algorithm, the less effective it becomes.

    Which makes it sound like either the "algorithm" isn't all that complicated or they don't exactly know how the algorithm works and they fired the guy who wrote it. On second thought, this just makes it sounds like they're making the whole "algorithm" thing up. Maybe "the algorithm" is twenty interns sitting in the basement sifting through reviews about coffee houses and dry cleaners.

    Any way I think about it, I cannot imagine using their service or trusting the reviews I read on Yelp.

  • Thin Skins (Score:4, Interesting)

    by fm6 ( 162816 ) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @06:03PM (#31643028) Homepage Journal

    I can't be bothered to dig up the link, but there was a story about a restaurant in San Francisco that was so mad at Yelp they had all their employees wear satirical shirts. I looked up that restaurant's Yelp page, and discovered a large number of extremely positive reviews and the usual comments by people who hate everything. All in all, Yelp is a big driver of business for these people. Some people just go ballistic at the slightest hint of criticism.

    One thing that does bug me about Yelp is the way people suddenly develop enthusiasms for businesses of limited merit. Three or four times I've gone out for lunch based on Yelp reviews and been a little puzzled as to what all the fuss was about. One was a Halal [] restaurant that serves OK food, but is a little on the pricey side for what they serve. (Following religious law in food preparation drives up the overhead a bit.) Needless to say, the staff are a little confused by this sudden influx of non-Muslim customers!

  • He's lying (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 27, 2010 @06:32PM (#31643228)

    He's not even bending the truth. Yelp is a scam for business owners. The sales people can and do influence the ratings directly. I've personally seen this with my business's reviews and have talked to Yelp sales people.

    I had 5, 5 star reviews, got a 6th review with 4 stars, amazingly about a week after that review, I got a call from a Yelp sales person saying that he's taken care of that review and if I'd like that to continue that it would cost me $300/month (their lowest cost plan). That payment would also keep my competitor's information from being displayed on my page when visited.

    I blew them off yet again and that 4 star review showed back up.

    I like the concept, but Yelp would only be useful if it wasn't a company trying to generate revenue for themselves standing behind it. A "community based" review system will only work if

    1) people can't post anonymously or if they can then negative or positive anonymous reviews don't hold much weight

    2) there is a review system in place to dispute slanderous claims.

    3) there isn't a company behind the system trying to make a buck off of selling advertising.

    and probably a 1/2 dozen or more other things in place. Nothing is perfect, but Yelp is useless if you want honest reviews about a business and that business happens to be a paying customer of Yelp.

  • Re:This is not news. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by lag10 ( 667114 ) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @07:45PM (#31643606)

    Yelp has been bullshit for some time. It's a neat idea, but they've censored several of my negative reviews which were all factual.

    As such, Yelp holds no value.

    This seems to be a common problem with such reviews. Fortunately, I've never seen Google Local remove any review that I've made.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 27, 2010 @08:18PM (#31643774)

    We own a small business which depends heavily on Yelp for traffic (as in, our business doubled when Yelp came around). This is good. What isn't good is the subtle attempts and bullying that have come from the Yelp salesteam. We get calls every few months from salespeople making obvious comments about "controlling our image" and other such things -- and amazingly every time we turn them down we find that many of our positive reviews are removed from the system with no explanation. We currently have 5 5-star reviews (we're a small company with very personal service -- all of our reviews are overwhelmingly positive so far) out of at least 30 that have been written over the last two written often at great effort and length by our customers. Every time we ask Yelp about it they say "reviews get removed because our algorithm detects abuse" and then "would you like to purchase a business plan from us"? They don't directly link the two, but the linkage is obvious.

    I'm sure the salespeople aren't directly going into the system and removing reviews because we don't buy from them -- I'm ALSO absolutely sure that they've manipulated their "algorithm" so that people who aren't paying will have positive reviews yanked very frequently. Maybe this isn't direct extortion but it sure is shady.

  • I'm suspicious (Score:2, Interesting)

    by slashdotjunker ( 761391 ) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @08:35PM (#31643894)
    We saw a restaurant on Yelp that had great reviews. We went to that restaurant and it was completely empty. Right after we sat down the waitress asked us where we heard of the restaurant. I don't like to answer questions like that, so I said nothing. My dining companion also kept silent. Immediately, the waitress asked us if we heard about the restaurant through Yelp. We nodded yes.

    The food at that restaurant was lousy. I am very suspicious about that encounter. Of course, I can't draw any conclusions from a single data point. However, I have no desire to go out and collect more data. The restaurant sucked, and if a top rating at Yelp doesn't guarantee at least a decent meal, then I'm done with Yelp.
  • He's not lying (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 27, 2010 @10:28PM (#31644478)

    Hi. I'm an engineer at Yelp. I know for a fact that salespeople cannot influence reviews in any way. They have no access to the internal Yelp administration pages; they use a separate Salesforce site for doing their work. In fact, they are not even allowed to post reviews to the site.

    Obviously I did not hear the conversation you had with the Yelp salesperson, but it would be VERY surprising if they suggested they could influence your reviews. Every new Yelp advertiser gets an orientation call within days of signing up for advertising. As part of this call the advertiser's account manager goes over the fact that advertising does not influences reviews in any way. If a salesperson were suggesting that they could influence reviews, the account manager would find out during this call and that salesperson would be fired. See this blog post for more information:

    As to your other points:
    1) The entire purpose of the review filter is to make untrusted reviews hold less weight:
    2) You can respond both privately and publicly to reviews of your business:
    3) I think that we can make a useful site and use advertising revenue to pay for our meals. At least Google has managed this feat, so it is not impossible.

    We try really hard to make Yelp a useful/funny/cool site that balances the needs of both business owners and consumers. We definitely don't always make everyone happy, but we are always listening to feedback and trying to make things better.

  • Re:He's not lying (Score:2, Interesting)

    by pigphish ( 1070214 ) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @10:52PM (#31644602)
    Could you please remove the following statement from your code:

    if (avertiserFee > 300) then BadReview = NULL else GoodReview = NULL
  • Re:He's not lying (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Man On Pink Corner ( 1089867 ) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @11:42PM (#31644826)

    The entire purpose of the review filter is to make untrusted reviews hold less weight

    So why do you remove some legitimate negative reviews entirely?

    Move them to the bottom of the list, if you must, but don't delete legitimate content, EVER.

  • Re:He's not lying (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 28, 2010 @01:07AM (#31645234)

    So why do you remove some legitimate negative reviews entirely?

    Move them to the bottom of the list, if you must, but don't delete legitimate content, EVER.

    The problem is that it is impossible to algorithmically to determine what is "legitimate" content, especially in the face of people paying others to write reviews []. We have made the choice to be conservative about what is considered legitimate. I wasn't the one who made this decision, but it seems like the right one to me. Given the generally low signal to noise ratio of the internet it's probably best that automated filters to be as aggressive as possible.

    We also have to be concerned about giving away too much about how the algorithm works. Clearly it would be ideal if the algorithm were bulletproof enough that even with complete knowledge of how it works one could not be defeat it. Unfortunately this is a very hard problem, and so we need to use some amount security through obscurity. If anyone thinks they can write a better algorithm, we are hiring.

    Also, the content is not really deleted. It remains on the user's profile page, and it can be restored if it is deemed legitimate in the future.

Each honest calling, each walk of life, has its own elite, its own aristocracy based on excellence of performance. -- James Bryant Conant