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Yelp's Problem! Lose Trust & You Lose Everything

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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

7 Responses to “Yelp's Problem! Lose Trust & You Lose Everything”

  1. coldbrew

    Trust is obviously one of the most important things in any relationship, personal or business, and this post does a good job of demonstrating the practical reasons for establishing and maintaining trust in business for those that need a reminder.

    Trust is my most important heuristic in making determinations (esp. on the net), so I specifically did NOT ignore the allegations against Yelp. I used my almost-20-years experience in the same town to examine the reviews of our local businesses, most of which I’ve been to numerous times. I also talked to many people I know that own small businesses in town.

    louderback: The way this post is written, it’s as if you don’t know how to use the ‘sort by catergory’ feature for reviews. Beyond that, from my talks locally, and the comments I’ve seen regarding Yelp, it seems many not_so_web_savvy SMB owners don’t understand why they can’t ask their friends and customers to leave reviews for them.

    While I realize perception is reality, I didn’t expect any technically focused organizations to show sympathy for Yelp’s accusers without seeing concrete evidence. I still haven’t seen any and will remain doubtful until some sort of proof emerges.

    Sorry for the long comment.

    P.S. Did you know all reviews on Yelp have RSS feeds?

  2. Very good article. As much as people require trust, they desperately crave convenience, and if convenience wins Yelp may get off unscathed (outside the courts, that is).

  3. “Manage Not Just the Facts, But the Perception.” I could not agree more. Fair or not, perception shapes reality. It reminds me of comedian Eddie Izzard saying, “70% of what people react to is the look, 20% is about how you sound, and only 10% is what you say.”

    Question — does Yelp have a Chief Trust Officer? To restore credibility, this would be a very good start.

  4. Turst is the basis of all we do in not only our profrssional but personal life. Trust is not something one should play around with because that is your bond and your assurance of not only who you are but defines your values and principles in life.

  5. Jim, good post on the importance of trustworthiness. On this very topic, I’d like to clarify a couple points you made.

    While we at the Universal Record Database ( were there to witness and document the record, we had nothing to do with the hoax itself. The idea was created and announced by Brian Brushwood, Justin Robert Young and Brett Rounsaville. All we did was adjudicate the feat.

    This particular record was obviously wacky, but that’s not the full intention of our site. We’re building an open platform for world records. That includes athletic records, charitable records, technological records and so forth. Creativity is encouraged, but we welcome all feats as long as they’re quantifiable and breakable. Our core belief is that everyone on earth can be the world’s best at something, whether it’s leading a massive hoax or running a 100-meter dash.


    Dan Rollman
    President and Co-Founder,