Can Yelp Save Itself from Its Users?

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A friend at work is a serious cheap eats hound. He has eaten at more ethnic restaurants in the South Bay than I even knew existed. I asked where he was going for lunch yesterday. He told me. I Yelped it, and he laughed at me. Why? “All those reviews are useless to someone like me. I have different taste than people who use Yelp. And I’m sure that a ton of those reviews are gamed,” he said.

True dat. Confirming suspicions of many residents of big cities where inexplicable Yelp ratings pumping up truly awful restaurants and bars are fairly common, the word is out that businesses can cheaply contract with black hat “reputation management companies” to pepper Yelp with fake reviews. Those reviews can either pump up a merchant or, alternatively, slag their competition. Yelp has algorithms to detect fake reviews but according to this past week’s The Haggler column in the New York Times, some merchants report that the anti-fraud algorithms primarily manage to screen out honest reviews from happy customers.

I long ago lost trust in Yelp as a guide when some of the worst restaurants in the city I knew of got top ratings in their categories. I’m a food snob, no doubt, but one was an Italian restaurant where I knew someone on the wait staff who told me the joint used Ragu bought from Costco and fobbed it off as homemade. But the trouble is, policing Yelp for fake reviews will be extremely difficult. That’s because the fake reviews are virtually indistinguishable from the real ones. Perhaps Yelp plans to do IP address filtering and the like but that will only get it so far. It’s pretty easy to tap crowdsourcing services to get lots of people to post Yelp reviews.

Policing Yelp for fake reviews will be extremely difficult. That’s because the fake reviews are virtually indistinguishable from the real ones.

Yelp has fought back. I know they have thrown real resources at their algorithmic fake review screening. And Yelp does allow you to “follow” other Yelpers that you know and trust. But you have to follow a lot of Yelpers to get to a critical mass of reliable restaurant reviews in a major city without having to rely on the hoi polloi.

In the meantime, Yelp has already lost most of the real foodies I know and trust. And with this foodie vanguard goes much of the cachet of Yelp’s reviews. I blogged a while back that Yelp could solve this problem by forcing users to reveal their identities through a Facebook log-in. But that concept has dramatically slowed commenting on sites such as TechCrunch.  That would be particularly problematic for Yelp because the trust factor on its star rating system goes up significantly as the review count goes up, as the good folks at EatMetrics point out in this blog post.

Without participation, Yelp will quickly lose steam. I for one would love to have a squeaky clean Yelp that I can rely on. And, to be fair, pinning everything on Yelp is uncool. Rather, the Internet is a place where no one knows you are a dog – or, more to the point, if you paid some dog to write a fake review. That’s simply never going to change, no matter how many fancy algorithms go up to try to spot people just being people.

Alex Salkever’s Personal Fight column appears every Friday.