Yelping Without a Net


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Notice anything different on Yelp? Beginning this week, you can read reviews that the site’s automatic filtering system had previously hidden from view.

Did you think that Yelp was a level playing field? Silly you.

Yelp has been stung by charges that it manipulates its users’ feedback to favor businesses that advertise on the site. The review site insists that its filter serves to maintain the integrity of the site by screening out reviews that are biased and untrustworthy, such as positive reviews written by the business itself or negative reviews that come from a competitor.

A number of small businesses have filed lawsuits alleging that Yelp’s screening tactics teetered into extortion with offers to highlight positive reviews and bury negative ones for businesses that agreed to purchase advertising. If a business refused to “pay to play,” it’s alleged that positive reviews would begin disappearing and brutally negative ones would start to pop up.

Yelp looks to silence its critics with some added transparency.

In an open letter to the community, Yelp’s CEO Jeremy Stoppelman (known to Yelpers as “Big Papa”) gives us a guided tour of the filtering process, pointing out the ways in which filtering software ‘protects‘ businesses and consumers from biased or malicious content. The ‘myths’ about manipulation have persisted despite what Stoppelman calls ‘our best efforts to educate consumers and the small business community.

Yelp is also discontinuing its Favorite Review feature. As part of their ad package, advertisers had been able to sort through reviews and select the most favorable to post at the top of their page. While Stoppelman claims the feature was merely misunderstood, its removal acknowledges the fuzzy line that separates ads and reviews. In its place, businesses can now post videos to the site.

Yelp contends that the filtering software maintains the integrity of Yelp. Without it, the site invites bias and manipulation. “Big Papa” is convinced that we’ll be running back to him begging for a return to the safety of filters.

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