Turning a critical eye on Yelp

Crowd-sourced reviews may seem like a trustworthy guide to the unknown. But whose opinions are deemed worthy?

I spotted the restaurant while on a stroll near my daughter's San Francisco apartment. The menu looked good, the prices were right. I decided to check its reviews online.

Then I saw the sign on the window of Bai Thong Thai: "Stop the Bully. Boycott Yelp."

Yelp is my go-to guide to the unknown. Like millions of other folks, I use the site to get the low-down on restaurants, nail salons, auto repair shops.

Bai Thong was a "3" on a 5-star scale, according to 88 Yelp reviews.

But the sign, posted by the owner, suggested the restaurant's score would be higher if Yelp hadn't manipulated rankings by hiding good reviews.

"Our customers repeatedly tell us they have submitted very good reviews" that never show up on the website. "We asked Yelp. We were told 'perhaps if you paid to do Yelp ads, we could help with this,'" the sign read.

"We earn our good reviews. We will not pay bribes to Yelp to post them."

Bai Thong has plenty of company.

Hundreds of disgruntled business owners have accused Yelp — the Goliath of crowd-sourced reviews — of tweaking its review system in order to prod low-rated companies to advertise on its site.

The claim that Yelp filters reviews to benefit its bottom line has been the subject of several lawsuits, all rejected by judges before ever reaching trial.

Yelp spokeswoman Kristen Whisenand denied that the reviews depend on whether businesses buy ads. "I don't know the exact script people use when they sell advertising," she said. "But there's no amount of money anyone can pay Yelp to manipulate reviews."

The filtering system protects consumers, she said, by screening out fake postings.

According to Whisenand, "a very sophisticated software system" decides which reviews seem real enough to count toward a business' ranking.

Apparently the system is so complicated that Yelp couldn't determine why the fellow who cuts my hair ended up with a string of negative reviews, while a batch of compliments — including mine — were considered suspect.

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Yelp started up almost 10 years ago, guided by a novel concept: "Real people. Real reviews." But as its power to influence consumers grew, those real people — friends or rivals of business owners — began posting not-so-real reviews.

So Yelp developed an algorithm to spot suspected phonies and funnel them to a harder-to-access public cache. "If we didn't have this," Whisenand said, "we'd be overrun with … businesses looking to deceive consumers."

The process was intended to preserve the website's reputation. But it's also drawn back the curtain on what is beginning to look less like a consumer resource and more like a forum for savvy commentators.

The algorithm may not be, as some have claimed, part of an extortion scheme. But it does favor frequent reviewers, especially those with a following.

And it's suspicious of folks like Martie, with no photo, no profile, no followers; her first review was a 5-star paean to her favorite knitting store.

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