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Writers Under Attack for Fake Yelp Reviews

Jean Dion • September 25, 2013

Yelp is Mad, but Should You Be?  What can you do to fix your negative Yelp Reviews?

yelp mad

Writers like me field flak on a daily basis. When I tell peers that I work from home, they ask me how often I put on shoes, as though I spend all day in my pajamas. Older people, however, often scowl before discussing the importance of working in an economy that makes something, not an economy that deals with intellectual property.

I've become adept at deflecting these witticisms ("whatever" works well), but lately, I've been noticing a new kind of attack. Now, freelancers are getting skewered because they're taking on legitimate assignments from paying clients.

What's their crime, you ask? Writing reviews on Yelp.

Victimless Crime?

This morning, on a quick scan of the Craigslist.com ads in Portland, Oregon, I found at least five companies that wanted to hire writers with active Yelp.com accounts and a proven ability to get reviews published. One company offered $10 per review, and considering that it takes just minutes to dash off a writing assignment like this, that's a pretty rewarding gig.

Meanwhile, in New York, the authorities are busily wrapping up a sting operation in which they found and prosecuted companies that set up a pay-for-review scheme to boost their ratings on Yelp. The writers themselves may not have been the target of the sting, but they certainly got smeared with mud in the process of prosecution. In a widely circulated article on the topic, the executives at Yelp suggest that they "welcome" the operation, since fraudulent writers make their product less valuable.

It's an interesting idea, but I'm not sure that I agree with it.

As a professional writer, my head is stuffed full of sparkling phrases and daring wit. I have decades of experience standing behind me, and my home office is packed with all sorts of reference books and cheat sheets. I sweat over each word I choose, just as I might worry over a small child I usher to the bus stop in the morning. It's my career, and I take it seriously.

But many of the reviewers on Yelp don't seem to take their work seriously at all. Half-formed sentences, some with no verbs, are common in reviews, and many are dotted with curses and tangential information. Reading these things makes my head hurt, and it seriously devalues Yelp in my eyes. I'm not sure I'd listen to a recommendation like this if it was given verbally, and I certainly don't like to read things like this at length.

I'm also not the only blogger that thinks that fraudulent reviews aren't worth the time and effort of law enforcement professionals. This blogger, for example, wrote a scathing account of the New York incident, full of tiny little daggers such as, "Scandalous! Won't somebody save the children from rave reviews about frogurt joints with surly service?" It's definitely worth a read.

I also think that most people are aware of the fraud aspect of Yelp and other consumer review sites. In an article published in USA Today, for example, frequent travelers provided a number of steps they follow in order to spot fake entries, including:

  • Focusing on middle-of-the road reviews
  • Skipping all 5-star entries
  • Checking the social media profiles of reviewers
  • Reading other reviews by the same author, and looking for a wide spread of opinion

People wouldn't have such a nuanced approach to consumer review sites, if they didn't at least expect that some of the reviews would be less than honest.

Real Concerns

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Even so, I can see why Yelp might worry about fraud and public perception. The company boasts that 4 of 5 users "feel confident" about local spending choices due to the information they read on Yelp. If all of the information they read comes from a professional writer who is working only for a paycheck, that sense of trust might begin to dip and sway. The line between a disinterested opinion and a paid promotion might blur or even disappear altogether.

That's why Yelp has worked so hard to develop sophisticated algorithms that are designed to sequester fake reviews. The contents of that algorithm are kept very hush-hush, so it's hard to know much about how they work and what they're designed to do, but it seems that the profile of the writer is very much involved in this process.

For example, if I'm in Oregon but I'm writing reviews in Colorado, Texas and Florida, I might be a shill that's getting paid. Similarly, if I've never written any kind of review before but I just feel so motivated to write that I can't stop myself from logging in to rave about my new toaster, I might be a hired hack. The filters are designed to weed out those reviews.

Business owners often claim that these filters are unfair, as they tend to sequester positive rankings while leaving the damaging information in place. One man even discussed this on "The People's Court," of all things, and he suggested that the filter was being used to punish him for resisting an entreaty to buy advertising space. I'm not sure that Yelp is conducting filtering for nefarious purposes, however. It seems to me that the company might be taking reasonable steps to look for and ban content that isn't produced in a manner that's consistent with their rules. If companies aren't buying advertising space, they might have a little money in the budget to hire a writer. It kicks up business without costing a huge amount of money. And when hiring a writer, most business executives would ask that person to craft a 5-star review. Why pay for poor publicity? It's easy to see why positive reviews would be sequestered in this model.

Takeaway Message

If companies are hiring writers to boost their cred, it's a bad idea. Period. Yelp doesn't like it, and neither do law enforcement officials, and they have the power here. Sure, writers like me might sweat and slave over our entries, hoping to create prose that will both inform and entertain, and maybe those entries will entice someone to come into your facility and spend money. More than likely, however, that fake review will be filtered into nothingness, where it doesn't help you at all. It might even get you negative publicity, if you're caught and prosecuted for the act.

Hiring a writer might not even be necessary, as you might already have writers in your client base. You'll never know that, though, unless you ask your loyal customers to write reviews about their honest-to-God experience with your company. Send them requests via email, bombard them with pleading messages on Facebook and Tweet about it. In time, your page will be filled with all sorts of reviews from live people who have honest things to say about your company.

Solutions for Fixing Negative Yelp Reviews

If getting good reviews from live customers won't help your Yelp, you likely need a proactive reputation management campaign to manage your Yelp reviews. We'll never hire writers to write reviews for you, but we can help you to develop a sophisticated strategy that can identify and remove the fake and damning reviews you have along with increasing your online presence to reduce the visibility of Yelp.  We use aggressive and strategic reputation management strategies to help bury Yelp profiles while removing negative Yelp reviews.

Visit our "Contact Us" page, and you'll see a little box with interactive fields. Here, you can give us a bit of information about the problem you're facing, and we’ll get back to you with a customized solution.

Now, if you'll pardon me, I have to get out of these pajamas.