Craigslist Ad looking for active yelpers to write reviews.
Craigslist Ad looking for active yelpers to write reviews.

Online review sites are flourishing, but new studies prove upwards of 25% of all reviews are bogus, flat out fakes! Good or Bad, the inability to distinguish real reviews is taking it’s toll on consumers.

Most people think of the internet as a useful resource, with the answer to any question just a query away. But there is a seedy underbelly, much like the backroom brothels in Vegas nobody talks about, it’s the money making side of the internet, where anything can be had — for a price.

New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman is the first of, I hope, many state officials to see the significance of how fake reviews can hurt business. Either by elevating the ranking of a bad business, or lowering the ranking of a good one. A quick peek at easily reveals dozens of people who will happily create fake reviews and testimonials for you, for only $5. And the “legit” ones tell you, they have to #ad next to the tweet, unless you pay a $20 upgrade, then they’ll forget to put that on! There’s really only one word for it…

And the company at the forefront of this debate is Yelp! Yelp claims that their review filter will weed out these fraudulent reviews and even slap a badge of dishonor on the business if Yelp deems their business has been buying fake reviews. And that’s a problem.

Ask any business member about their faith that Yelp will protect their business and very few would give the review giant a thumbs up. This is a company that doesn’t answer the phone, allows competitors to write fake reviews and filters legitimate reviews, frequently putting good honest businesses out of business.

The rumor mill is full of legitimate stories of business that claim they got a fake bad review, and then the phone rings and it’s a Yelp salesperson offering to take care of the problem. One person who contacted me claimed to have been hired by a Yelp salesperson to write bad reviews and then remove them once the business signed up for advertising. I asked for proof and am still waiting. But it fits with the hundreds of stories of businesses feeling victimized after they get “the call” asking them to advertise. And if they decline, all their good reviews go missing. We will never know the truth of those claims with a thorough code review of the processes at Yelp, and that will never happen. EVER.

And while they stand behind the Communications Decency Act to protect them from litigation, they’re now stepping squarely in the thick of it. The Constitutional Right to anonymous free speech was to protect political dissidents from retaliation. Not a disgruntled diner who thought their waitress shouldn’t wear a nose ring.

A little background on the idea of stealthy sabotage…

There used to be an easy way to get rid of a Google result you didn’t want coming up: you simply bought a bunch of really bad, slimy, cheap backlinks for the site and viola, it vanished, slapped by Google for violating their rule to not attempt to manipulate the rankings. But it became so commonplace that Google now allows business owners to verify their backlinks to protect them from this unethical business practice.

Now imagine how Yelp will handle it… go ahead, try to imagine a company that won’t answer the phone or remove a review that says, “I went in because of the cute outfit in the window and the sales girls was so rude” when the business is run out of a house, with no storefront! Clearly a competitor, a mistake, but Yelp doesn’t have the bandwidth or the commitment to deal with such trivial things as a fake/defamatory review that hurts a businesses bottom line. In essence, Yelp will make it easier for competitors to destroy the competition because there is no way to determine who bought what. All a competitor need do is buy reviews and have them posted. And the more easily recognizably fake the better.

There is only one solution: move away from the anonymous reviews with no context and toward friend to friend word of mouth, like upstart FlypList. When I write a great review of a restaurant, all my friends know it must be a great place. Why? Because I’m a foodie. A gluten free foodie with allergies who demands awesome and friendly service. I’m not the person you would ask about Laundromats because I never go there. Or tattoo parlors. And my friends know this. And their friends can easily figure it out. I have expertise in variety of subjects but not all, and that’s where the current selection of online review sites fail. There is no context. If you prefer 5 star hotels and get stuck in a 2 star in the middle of nowhere, you might rate it 2 stars. But it could be a 5 star hotel in its category. Get it? Context!

Weeding out fraud is important and I applaud all the efforts, but for every advance, it just opens up a new wave of profiteering from the internet underbelly, a new way to game the system. Only when word of mouth is taken back down to the personal level, where people stand by their word, will it ever be truly authentic. So while Google has replaced the card catalog for nearly everyone, Reviews will become more personal.