Yelp Changes Features to Address Extortion Claims

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

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