Restaurant Owner Slammed On Yelp For Supporting Obama

Over the weekend President Obama made a campaign stop at Big Apple Pizza in Ft. Pierce, Florida. The owner, Scott Van Duzer, is reportedly a registered Republican but is also a supporter of Obama. During a photo-op he bear-hugged Obama (with Secret Service permission).

The story and the image (at right) received national media attention. Some anti-Obama and anti-Big Apple “protesters” called for a boycott of the place and fire-breathing opinions began showing up on Yelp after the event.

They had nothing to do with the quality of the restaurant’s food or service. Here are a number of examples:

Once the politically motivated reviews were discovered Big Apple Pizza supporters and sympathizers began to flood the site with positive ratings and comments. Most of these also have little or nothing to do with the food and service at the restaurant. Here are two of dozens of examples:

Out of curiosity about how Yelp’s review filter was responding I checked the quarantined reviews (positive and negative) that were flagged as suspect by Yelp’s algorithm.

My guess is that all the recent one-star reviews were political, given the positive history of reviews for the restaurant and the dates they were left. There were also numerous positive reviews filtered out for much the same reason, it appears.

Yet many of the politically motivated five star reviews made it through the Yelp filter. This was an obvious break-down of Yelp’s system. Lots of reviews that had nothing to do with the restaurant itself were posted.

Yelp’s challenge in this case is how to handle all the political and “social” commentary (positive or negative) about the restaurant that has almost nothing to do with its food or service. It’s a big distraction for people trying to figure out whether to eat there. OpenTable uses a system whereby it only solicits reviews from people who it “knows” have eaten there (those who’ve made reservations through its system). With some caveats and limitations, Yelp allows anyone to review any business.

To address this specific controversy I suspect that Yelp editors will need to read each of the recent reviews for Big Apple Pizza themselves and zap those that are just political statements without more. But are these comments illegitimate? Do they violate Yelp’s content guidelines? In some cases clearly yes, in others it’s not as clear.

Clearly people felt passionately about the politics involved and wanted to express that. It’s interesting that it happened on Yelp and not Facebook, Twitter or some “boycott Big Apple Pizza” website. The one-star “haters” knew that Yelp was a place to influence people and wanted to hurt the business owner for his political views. The controversy surrounding Big Apple Pizza may be an extreme or unusual case for Yelp, yet it poses some interesting philosophical questions.

The central dilemma here is how to protect the relevance and integrity of the reviews and the business profile, while allowing people to have a discussion or “dialog” with the business owner and each other on matters that may be indirectly relevant. In other words: how can and should Yelp seek to balance potentially conflicting interests and in doing so not make the rules too restrictive or rigid?

I think Yelp needs to think carefully about situations like this given its visibility and increasing influence and perhaps revise its content guidelines to indicate that discussions that are too far removed from the goods, service or experience provided by the business are subject to editorial removal. But editing for content — especially in the case of political opinions — is a slippery slope.

Below is the CBS news segment about Big Apple Pizza that aired this weekend.

Postscript: Yelp provided the following statement:

“Non-germane, media-fueled reviews typically violate our Content Guidelines. Although most instances like these do not reach the level of media attention received by Big Apple Pizza, Yelp has proven policies in place to deal with such events: once brought to Yelp’s attention, our user operations team will remove reviews determined to violate our Terms of Service and Content Guidelines, including reviews that only attack a business’s perceived political ideologies. This way, people can continue find great local businesses – and even a good slice — based on evaluations of consumer experiences, and not political views.

General Guidelines

Yelp allows users to contribute different kinds of content, including reviews, photos, events, votes, tips, private messages, and more. Playing nice isn’t rocket science, but just in case, we’ve put together these general guidelines. Please also read the guidelines below for specific types of content that you might contribute to the site.

  • Inappropriate content: Colorful language and imagery is fine, but there’s no need for threats, harassment, lewdness, hate speech, and other displays of bigotry.
  • Conflicts of interest: Your contributions should be unbiased and objective. For example, you shouldn’t write reviews of your own business or employer, your friends’ or relatives’ business, or businesses in your networking group.
  • Promotional content: Unless you’re using your Business Owners Account to add content to your business’s profile page, we generally frown upon promotional content. Let’s keep the site useful for consumers and not overrun with commercial noise from every user.
  • Relevance: Please make sure your contributions are relevant and appropriate to the forum. For lexample, reviews aren’t the place for rants about a business’s employment practices, political ideologies, extraordinary circumstances, or other matters that don’t address the core of the consumer experience.
  • Privacy: Don’t publicize other people’s private information. Please don’t post close-up photos of other people without their permission, and please don’t post other people’s full names unless you’re referring to service providers who are commonly identified by their full names.
  • Intellectual property: Don’t swipe content from other sites or users. You’re a smart cookie, so write your own reviews and take your own photos, please!

Related Topics: Channel: Local | Top News | Yelp

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About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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  • cjvannette

    “The central dilemma here is how to protect the relevance and integrity
    of the reviews and the business profile, while allowing people to have a
    discussion or ‘dialog’ with the business owner and each other on
    matters that may be indirectly relevant.”

    Why is that Yelp’s dilemma? Do they care about providing a forum for users to “have a discussion” with a business owner? They’re not Twitter.

    My guess is, they care about providing reviews and ratings that reflect the actual customer experience, because that’s what most users expect from Yelp. Is this kind of information is relevant and helpful to their user base? Some people clearly care about business owners’ political views, but is that what they’re thinking about when they go to Yelp?

  • cjvannette

    Oh, and since I’m sure something similar happened with Chick-Fil-A, how did Yelp handle that?

  • http://twitter.com/ericward Eric Ward

    A great example of why YELPs (or frankly, almost all) user generated reviews cannot be a significant ranking signal. What happened here was a specific event sparked a flurry of comments, none of which had to do with the food itself. The reason this particular example became known to us is because it made National news. These reviews are just as useless as the millions of bogus reviews that are posted every day by review sweatshops. That said, my hunch is Mr. Van Duzer could care less. P.T. Barnum said “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right”. So I’ll tweak it for the new millenium, as follows: “I don’t care what you say about my business, just get the URL right”. -LinkMoses

  • http://twitter.com/andrew_goodman Andrew Goodman

    It’s been years now — as someone involved in the journey to build a review site in a deeper, more expensive vertical (home renovations at HomeStars) — that we’ve noted the drawbacks of a site like Yelp. I love that Yelp is offering so much information and getting better and better. The community is great, warts and all. But compared with other kinds of mission-critical consumer purchase information, reviews of pizza joints, cafes, and nightclubs are a mile wide and an inch deep. And it’s much harder to accurately scale efforts to verify reviews — say, through spot-checks requiring reviewers to prove they’re an actual customer. (And BTW, Andy Beal’s new company – that geolocates hotel visitors by providing a device onsite to verify guest status… brilliant!)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=588188254 Jim Hodson

    I have to agree with Eric (I rarely disagree with him LOL)! Using UCG reviews as signals for ranking businesses on Google Places/G+ is VERY subject to manipulation. I think the same is true of using social signals to rank sites in “truly” organic results. Both are VERY spammable and subject to manipulation. And because of their newness, even more prone to manipulation than links.
    At least Google has years of experience detecting and dealing with spammed links of all sorts. They have automated much of it with filters like Penguin. More serious and less detectable offenses are still dealt with through manual actions (penalties and bans) by Googlers. But they have a lot of experience with and tools built to deal with link manipulation.
    Reviews from UCG sites as well as social signals from Twitter, Facebook, etc. are relatively new to search engines. As such there is very little infrastructure and process built for detecting and dealing with abuse like exists for link abuse.

  • http://twitter.com/TechAhead TechAhead

    I never though people would hate Obama so much and why do you have to hate the poor man’s pizza parlour just because he supports another party

  • http://twitter.com/reaglev reagle

    you should expect comments about politics when you use your business for politics

  • http://twitter.com/gsterling Greg Sterling

    The question here is what’s “relevant.” That’s a harder question to answer than it first appears. Yelp sees itself to some degree as a social CRM tool. Users clearly “talk to each other” about businesses on Yelp. These are existing parts of the Yelp “culture.”

  • cjvannette

    Exactly. Yelp needs to figure out if its users like political commentary in their business reviews, or if they consider it noise that distracts them from the information they really want. Although considering that they’re still not profitable, they probably have more important things to figure out …

  • alkalitta

    just do the right thing and kill the guy

  • Alex Murphy

    “Do they care about providing a forum for users to “have a discussion” with a business owner?”

    That’s why Google+ Local will eventually be the dominant local listing site, because it combines both local listings + reviews and the social layer of direct communication between the business and its customers, all from one page.

  • http://twitter.com/KenYPTalk Ken Clark

    Hello. What world are you living in?

  • http://twitter.com/BlueHatOfficial Blue Hat Marketing

    this is probably going to be an increasing problem as corporations are for some reason deciding to comment on political matters more than ever.

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