Yelp's Problem! Lose Trust & You Lose Everything

I don’t trust Yelp any more. And that’s not a conscious decision. I’ve largely ignored the well-publicized allegations of how the ad side manipulated ratings and reviews to drive sales, instead continuing to turn to the site for recommendations on everything from restaurants to plumbers to airport parking. But they’ve nonetheless seeped into my subconscious and tarred my view of the service. Indeed, Yelp is learning that trust is a hard thing to win, but amazingly easy to lose. And that’s why it needs to be protected with the corporate equivalent of the Praetorian Guard.

Here’s what happened: The other day I was looking for a decent long-term lot at San Jose Airport; Yelp’s recommendation page was near the top of Google, so I clicked over to check it out. As usual, I scanned the top 3-4 results, then read through the reviews of the most likely suspects. Quick Park SJC, ranked No. 1, seemed to have everything I needed -– a rating of over 3, pretty decent reviews and a nearby location.

But then I started looking more closely at those reviews -– and noticed an interesting pattern: There were a few from the last month or so, then nothing for nearly a year. And the last of that group was complaining about how the lot had recently raised prices and had a bit of a surly shuttle driver problem.

So why the gap? I didn’t know, but suddenly I wasn’t so sure this was such a great place to park. So I clicked over to TripAdvisor to look for airport parking information there. Since I couldn’t find any — and I was admittedly in a hurry — I ended up selecting Quik Park SJC after all. But I was far less sanguine about my choice. Yelp, alas, was no longer in my inner circle of trust.

Which leads me to three key trust rules:

Got a Problem? Deal With It Quickly: I learned that the hard way during my early years running the test lab at PC Week in the 90s. We had a columnist, Will Zachman, who was an ardent proponent of an early Windows competitor from IBM called OS/2. Microsoft, in those days, advertised incessantly in tech magazines, and Zachman felt that his editor was shaping his OS/2 diatribes to please Microsoft. So he publicly declared independence from the magazine on July 4th, accusing members of the business side of leaping over the “wall” and smacking down the EIC until he censored Zachman’s opinions to appease their biggest advertiser. Zachman had been kvetching about his supposed “censoring” for some time leading up to his Independence Day action, but the editorial team just ignored him — until it was too late.

Notably, I never saw any evidence supporting his accusations. Which leads me to my second tip:

Manage Not Just the Facts, But the Perception: Lack of evidence aside, just the merest whiff of perceived bias was enough to tar us with a wide brush. It took us a long time to cast off that perception. And that’s why, about a year later, I immediately fired a junior lab staffer who falsified test results, and not for money or influence, but because he was being run ragged by an overbearing manager. He was young. Impressionable. He probably only deserved a warning. But he violated a trust, one that, had it become public, would have been harmed us even more. I had to take quick action to preserve the trust that our readers had in our reviews.

Trust has to be carefully nurtured and ruthlessly defended. It’s why TechCrunch fired the intern who asked for a MacBook in exchange for covering a new company. It’s why IDG moved quickly to cut off any association with Randall Kennedy and why Facebook has such a big problem on its hands with the hacking allegations against CEO and Co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. It’s because:

If You Trade in Trust, Everything You Do or Say Is Relevant: At our live Diggnation show last weekend at SXSW in Austin, the wacky folks at URDB.Com convinced the crowd of 3,000-plus people to perpetrate a huge hoax — that Conan O’Brien was onstage and coming over to Revision3. Hundreds of partygoers tweeted out the “news,” and it quickly became the biggest Twitter hoax ever.

It was all fun and games, up to a point. Some pretty influential and trusted people tweeted and retweeted the hoax to their followers. Unfortunately, more than a few journalists saw tweets from people they had come to trust and were subsequently convinced that they had to be true. And once they discovered they’d been punk’d, they lashed out. In the end, more than one social media “expert” damaged their credibility by engaging in a little bit of pranksterism.

In Yelp’s case, that delicate tissue of trust has already been perforated — perhaps fatally. For even those of us that have willfully ignored the allegations against the site are ready to go elsewhere.

Jim Louderback is CEO of Revision3. He was previously vice president of Ziff Davis Media and Editor-in-Chief of PC Magazine and PCMag.com.

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