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Summary:

Though Yelp steadfastly denies allegations — and now lawsuits — that its salespeople pressure businesses to buy advertising to remove negative reviews, the company tonight addressed them head-on. Specifically, it will become more transparent about its filtering process and give less favorable treatment to advertisers.

Though Yelp steadfastly denies allegations — and now lawsuits — that its salespeople pressure local businesses to buy advertising in exchange for removing negative reviews and getting preferential treatment, the company tonight addressed them head-on. Specifically, it’s making two major product changes to become more transparent about its filtering process and give less favorable treatment to advertisers.

* First, Yelp is removing the cloak of invisibility from its review filter. Yelp previously made reviews disappear off business profiles, often when they seem to be gaming the system (for instance, a spate of similar positive reviews of a shop could mean the proprietor is asking people to write them — see the video below explaining the filter). Those reviews remained on the site — visible on the authors’ profile — but weren’t something you could find in the course of browsing businesses. Company owners complained that Yelp was editorially skewing reviews about their businesses. Now, Yelp will allow users to toggle to a page of filtered reviews for any business and read them for themselves.

Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman wrote in a blog post explaining the changes:

[M]ost importantly, you can see that Yelp’s review filter works just the same for advertisers and non-advertisers alike. There is not — nor ever has been — a bias. So will Yelp be easier to game now? No, our engineers remain hard at work to make sure that Yelp is the most useful and helpful online resource for everyone.

Yelp's new transparent review filter

* Second, Yelp is discontinuing the paid feature of allowing advertisers to choose and promote a positive review of their establishment on their Yelp profile. This “Favorite Review” feature would highlight a previously submitted user review prominently above the fold, pushing recent reviews down the page. It was misconstrued as a way for businesses to control the content on their page, Stoppelman said. He did not specify how the change would impact advertisers who’d already paid for the feature.

Yelp said it was also creating a Small Business Advisory Council, and it has already incorporated feedback from meetings with business owners, such as including advertiser videos on their profile pages (a feature that also launched today).

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

How Social Networks Could Help Yelp, Not Kill It

  1. Yelp’s reviews may or may not be gamed, but they certainly are worthless. 99.9% of the reviews on the site are horrible in content and tone. In the hierarchy of Web 2.0 they are one small step above YouTube commentors.

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  2. YouTube commenters are about the worst thing on the Internet, Chris, 4Chan excluded. As I mentioned in a column on Company.com, take a normal person, add the audience of the Internet and anonymity, and presto: you have a maniac, or a Philadelphia Flyers fan.

    I work at a startup, Company.com. Our Web site helps small business owners find services. We’re planning to integrate social models into our site, but we keep running into the “foolishness of crowds” problem: When you have a black-and-white problem, the majority isn’t always right. We’re relying on expert commentary to advice small business owners, for the moment. But you know, we see the appeal. User-generated content is fast and cheap.

    Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick two.

    Yelp is in damage control mode, of course. They have to be worried about the public reaction to the lawsuits. Yelp reviews work for the most part at the margins, I think — they can identify the best and the worst. But shades of gray? Most user-generated content online doesn’t rise above the eloquence of text messaging from your niece in junior high.

    I have a longer post about online reputation management problems in our advice section at Company.com, http://bit.ly/bTCuyp. Yes, one of our vendor partners is an online reputation management firm. And I’m telling you that up front. We noticed that there’s no easy way for the casual Yelp user to tell when the restaurant they’re reading about has paid for the privilege of appearing as it does in Yelp’s guide.

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    p>That, I believe is the crux of the problem. Trust. Consumers don’t know who is buying placement, and businesses don’t know who has an axe to grind or money to make from a review. When the system has trust, it works out. Without out it, I think it breaks down. We’ll be watching how this shakes out.

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    1. anonymousjerk Tuesday, April 6, 2010

      Nice subtle ad for company.com Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz

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      1. Nice catch :-)

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      2. Actually, it’s a pretty blatant, utterly shameless ad for Company.com. And it’s also informed opinion, on-topic and my biases are clearly declared. Since I’m writing about Yelp postings … well, it seemed appropriate.

        Irony: Complaining about promotional material in user-generated content about Yelp.

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  3. That Yelp would even think about extorting businesses is despicable.

    This causes their reviews to be worthless and suspect.

    There is nothing they can do about a bad reputation other than to go belly up for having taken the risk of extorting businesses.

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  4. [...] changes to how reviews are displayed to address criticisms that it extorts businesses. Read more: GigaOm about April 6, 2010 8:41 AM – by Eric [...]

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  5. Yelp needs to address these concerns before it is too late. The value of Yelp is three-fold, information, trust, and a critical mass of community.

    Once consumers, reviewers, and proprietors lose trust in Yelp, it’s game over.

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  6. toodles yelp, these changes are a tacit admission of guilt.

    six years and no profits, and no even the shady practice that was bringing in the meager income is now gone.

    there’s a huge opportunity for someone to come in and drive a stake through yelp.

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  7. Yelp’s “review filter” is completely lame, hypocritical and contradictory – it’s a sign of the times. In a country that values “diversity” and the “freedom of the individual” (something which is contradictory in itself), persons who likely have important things to say about businesses, are prohibited the opportunity to do so since they don’t participate in the “Yelp community” as much as they should. From what I can tell, many, many persons feel inclined to provide a Yelp review either because they really love, or really hate, a business.

    The review filter is just another shuffling-of-the-feet by lawmakers/lawyers, bureaucrats, power-holders, etc, suppressing the “free speech” which was once provided through Yelp.

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