After Sting Operation, Yelp Outs 8 Businesses That It Caught Trying To Buy Reviews

yelp-consumer-alert-logoYelp is now showing “Consumer Alert” warning messages on the profile pages of eight businesses that it says it caught in a sting operation trying to buy reviews.

As the New York Times reports, Yelp conducted a sting operation in which one of its employees pretended to be an “Elite” reviewer and responded to review solicitations on Craigslist. As the article explains:

A pest control company offered $5 to anyone who would post a review that the business itself had written. The moving company was willing to pay $50 but wanted original copy. An appliance repair shop provided a start: “I really appreciate that the service tech was on time, the problem was solved, everything was cleaned up and he was very professional. Please add 50 or more words,” the shop suggested. It would pay $30.

The highest payment was offered by a jewelry store in San Diego, which said it was forced to solicit reviews after others got away with doing it. “We have noticed that some of our larger, corporate run competitors have been unfairly trying to get reviews written for them on Yelp, which puts us at a disadvantage,” wrote Bert Levi of Levi Family Jewelers. He said he would pay $200 for a review of a new custom-designed ring.

This warning is now showing — and will remain for three months — on the Levi Family Jewelers profile page on Yelp, and on the pages of seven other businesses that Yelp says it caught trying to buy reviews:

yelp-buying-reviews

That’s not all Yelp is doing. You can see that the word “here” at the end is blue — that’s a link to a JPG showing the correspondence that took place during Yelp’s sting.

Yelp has posted the evidence for its visitors to read. Here’s a portion of the original email allegedly from the business owner to the Yelp employee that was pretending to be an Elite reviewer.

evidence-letter

“Bert” tells the reviewer that his company has noticed “some of our larger, corporate run competitors … unfairly trying to get reviews written for them on yelp, which puts us at a disadvantage.”

Right or wrong, that’s emblematic of how competitive the reviews space is right now and how desperate business owners are to get positive reviews. The problem is perhaps worse on Yelp due its review filter, which can be very hit and miss when it comes to choosing reviews to show or hide. But it’s certainly not a problem that only Yelp faces; business owners can buy reviews for Google+, Amazon, app stores and other sites from sites like Fiverr, Freelancer.com and others.

Eric Singley, Yelp’s VP of Consumer and Mobile Products, tells the Times that the group of eight businesses being outed now “is just a sample” of businesses that are soliciting reviews.

The article implies that additional businesses were caught trying to buy ads and will later have the warning added to their pages. We’ve reached out to Yelp for more information about that and will update this article if and when we learn more.

Postscript: Shortly after publishing, a Yelp spokesperson sent us this statement: “If/as we find more, we will put consumer alert notices on their pages, as well.”

Related Topics: Channel: Local | Features: Analysis | Legal: General | Search Engines: Maps & Local Search Engines | SEO: Local | Top News | Yelp

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About The Author: is Editor-In-Chief of Search Engine Land. His news career includes time spent in TV, radio, and print journalism. His web career continues to include a small number of SEO and social media consulting clients, as well as regular speaking engagements at marketing events around the U.S. He recently launched a site dedicated to Google Glass called Glass Almanac and also blogs at Small Business Search Marketing. Matt can be found on Twitter at @MattMcGee and/or on Google Plus. You can read Matt's disclosures on his personal blog.

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  • ScottyMack

    Holy smokes! This is news? I’ve been paid $150-$200 to write online reviews for several major corporations’ new products – many of which I had never tried or even seen – and this has been an ongoing practice for … well … ever!

    Next thing you know, they’ll come out with the shocking story that websites create their own product reviews! Or wait … not everything on Wikipedia is a fact!

    What do you think affiliate websites are? They are paid for reviews! Do people really think the person in TV commercials endorsing products is a real person and not a paid actor? Do people think that political candidates actually believe everything in the speeches that have been written for them?

    Welcome to the real world where even reviews and testimonials are fake. I’m quite sure I read somewhere, “don’t believe everything you read” (maybe some people don’t believe it when they read it).

    This rant wasn’t necessarily intended for the writer of this article. It was more a response to Yelp. Hardly Watergate material!

  • Matt McGee

    No one’s saying that fake reviews or buying reviews is news, ScottyMack. I’ve been (as have others) writing about that for years. The news is that Yelp conducted a sting operation and is putting large alerts on the business pages of those that it says were caught trying to buy reviews. That’s a very aggressive move on Yelp’s part.

  • ScottyMack

    Yeah, I get that. It’s like the person who gets nailed drinking and driving after driving out of the bar as ten other bar patrons roll out past his pulled over car. You can only pull them over one at a time. In my opinion, it gives Yelp less credibility. They are implying that these businesses have done something that none of the other ones have done.

  • http://twitter.com/filiber Fili Wiese

    Interesting move from Yelp, but unless they are willing to completely wipe all reviews permanently of any business caught buying reviews this will not deter these businesses from keeping to try buying reviews. Also, I am curious how they want to scale this (having sting operations all the time is not scale-able with the number of businesses listed on Yelp). Right now, this just looks like a PR stunt to scare honest business owners (who may have considered at some time to buy a one-time review) from buying reviews but I doubt it will stop the hardcore review buyers. To stop the hardcore review buyers you need to take harder action and have a scale-able way of detecting them. Nonetheless, thanks for sharing :)

  • http://twitter.com/keyserholiday Jason Brown

    The sad thing is the there is no real way to catch the the fake negative reviews. I hardly doubt this review is legit, “Da worse service ever.. Dey just judge me cuz I was in my work clothes.. Dey list a customer.” I know that yelp will filter out reviews, but will not delete these types of reviews. I am glad to see that they are trying to stop the fake paid positive reviews, but it will be interesting to see if they can find somebody buying fake negative reviews for their competition.

  • http://www.esocialmedia.com Jerry Nordstrom

    A Yelp Sting Operation – That is soooo funny. Yelp is the biggest farce of a
    “review” service you could find. Just ask them about their sales practices of calling small businesses, pitching them, then if they don’t sign up suddenly all these negative reviews appear on Yelp and they have no ability to remove them…. Gee? I’m confident Yelp didn’t do this, it was simply a coincidence! Or better, 99% of the positive reviews are suddenly “in the hidden filtered section” and the remaining 1% are visible. Some may even suggest this is soft extortion. But not me of course. Yelp is used by all sorts of sales people slamming their competition and then pointing potential prospects to the false negative reviews. So when I hear that YELP is conducting a “sting” to stop companies from trying to defend themselves from Yelps quality service, I have to laugh out loud.

  • http://blog.clayburngriffin.com/ Clayburn Griffin

    Someone needs to out Yelp.

  • http://www.stanleyoppenheimer.com searchengineman

    This smells like linkbait. I hope YELP has lawyered up, because these businesses could sue. It would have been better if the accounts had been suspended. I’m curious if the fine print of YELP’s service agreement covers “Fake Reviews” and penalties? If not send in the lawyers…

  • http://twitter.com/nsauser nsauser

    Yea, it’s funny how their ‘sophisticated’ review filter will leave one potentially fake review and filter 15 real reviews. Not only do your clients have to review you on Yelp but their filter makes sure that if they don’t review other businesses then their review will never show. Its such a joke.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mitchell.espina Mitchell Espina

    Interesting! Are they going to check all the “classified sites” to see if there are businesses paying to get positive reviews? Or someone from the competitors side sent the complaint? Hmmm…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1193463803 Russell Hayes

    @searchengineman:disqus Yelp doesn’t have a single thing to worry about. I wouldn’t be shocked if the evidence they gathered hasn’t already been submitted to the FTC. The next thing will be the web sites that let firms or agencies post fake or even real reviews on behalf of businesses. Any material connection must be disclosed, period. So in other words, if its not the actual customer creating the account and positing their own review, you had better be watching out.

  • http://www.privacylover.com Frank Merlott

    This is the tip of the iceberg, the Internet is full of fake reviews.

  • Kate

    So let me get this straight…A competitor could either BUY a review… or pretend to be another company buying reviews and get them blacklisted on YELP?
    Sounds like Yelp is setting themselves up for disaster. How do they know it was that company asking for reviews, and not a competitor asking for reviews on behalf of that company just to get them booted?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1193463803 Russell Hayes

    Was it disclosed that the review was paid? If not…ut oh.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1193463803 Russell Hayes

    Funny how it says in the letter posted above, “We are honest”. Oh really? Funny stuff!

  • http://www.facebook.com/bob.caps.3 Bob Caps

    I will gladly write a review for your business for just $10.00. Send your info to bellwatchdog at g mail and I’ll send you a review to proof.

  • martinw392

    Oh yea go get those evil businesses yelp guys! Yelp is the absolute worst offender, “real extortionists real manipulated reviews” Just Google “yelp extortion” to get the whole story on how yelp is hurting small businesses all over the country.

  • http://twitter.com/nicklavdas Nikolaos Lavdas

    i m in the same boat, i have regular customers tell me this all the time.
    that they post and there posts get filtered.
    i have a sales person calling me from yelp, telling me i m making a big mistake
    by not advertising with them. at a cost of 700 a month.
    then all of the sudden my good reviews, end up filtered and my negative reviews
    show up, no problem of course. They are blackmailing me, and . its ridiculous.
    as a small little restaurant, i cant afford 700 a month.
    i wish someone started a case action sue against them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/paparazzi.bjj Colby Black

    Great, so now competition can set up fake Craigs list ads and then when yelp bites the bait…get their competition flagged lol. Yelp is so stupid. They are the slimiest guys ever. They always delete good reviews, leave bad ones and then extort businesses to pay an extra $400/month in order to show all the reviews and allow businesses to “pick which review is on home page”. Ridiculous!

  • Filip Galetic

    Personally I commend this kind of action. Anything “ethical” is really rare these days in online business world.

  • Jill Whalen

    Go Yelp!

  • martinw392

    loser

  • martinw392

    Great, so now competition can set up fake Craig’s list ads and then when yelp bites the bait…get their competition flagged lol. Yelp is so stupid. They are the slimiest guys ever. They always delete good reviews, leave bad ones and then extort businesses to pay an extra $400/month in order to show all the reviews and allow businesses to “pick which review is on home page”. Ridiculous! Just Google “yelp extortion” to see the ugly truth behind yelp, and how they are hurting small businesses all over the country!!! The FTC needs to get involved with this!!

  • David Rush

    The best way to avoid fraud is to ensure that the author of the review is actually at the place when they write it. @evzdrop

  • http://twitter.com/CiVoMarketing Ryan Popovic

    No, as long as you are not coercing them to write a positive review, it is perfectly fine.

  • Sean Daily

    I’m so unsubscribing from your newsletter Jill. Disappointing.

  • http://twitter.com/cjz Chris

    Yelp prefers that the checks go directly to them rather than to a paid reviewer!! I was at a small business event and several hundred small business owners started boo-ing and hissing when one of the presenters mentioned Yelp.

  • Matthew O’Such

    Found a couple of the companies that were flagged, see them in this google search result: http://bit.ly/BoughtYelpReviews – great sting operation by Yelp on that one. I wonder when Google will get around to doing this?

  • http://twitter.com/RekhaBisht5 Rekha Bisht

    Wow… that’s a great effort by Yelp :), now the businesses those are playing fairly will able to get positive reviews and the cheaters will be caught. :)

  • http://mrsrobinson.blog.com/ Mrs Robinson

    Its there for precisely this reason, So people aren’t being paid or bribed to write one review (good or bad) for a company. If they really did have experiences and want to tell people, more will write more than one review for only one business… This is why in my opinion, its a lot more relevant than google, or tripadvisor or any of the foodie ones. They;’re not overly saturated with bull crap

  • smichaelgriffin

    Regardless of your feelings towards Yelp, something needs to be done to assure the validity of online reviews – or at least distinguish paid reviews from “organic” ones. Yelp’s tactics are questionable and I doubt this action will be effective but I’m sure we’ll see much tighter policing in the future.

  • http://twitter.com/scottsala Scott Sala

    A major outdoor retailer once gave me free gear for posting x number of reviews. Guess this is bad too.

  • Tom

    If any of Yelp’s investors or advertisers are reading this, I urge you to immediately pull out of Yelp while you still can. You do not want to be associated with a company that is being run in such a reckless manner. Yelp is a company with no core values. No core – period. Like an onion. Peel away the layers, and you’ll never get to the core. I can honestly say that I do not think Yelp will be around much longer. Jeremy obviously does not care about doing the right thing. He is unethical and unprofessional.

  • Glenn T

    Bad reviews will not affect corporate companies who have limited liability. Small businesses are comprised of people who are just trying to work to live, feed their families, and contribute to their local economy.

    And now, in this difficult economy where many are trying to stay afloat, Yelp has them by the balls.

    They want business owners to pay them a few hundred dollars to ‘advertise,’ which is basically just makes their page more favorable looking than those who don’t pay Yelp.

    Congratulations, Yelp… you have succeeded at your business, at the expense of many, many others. How American of you.

    Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman even said in a NYT article, “We put the community first, the consumer second and businesses third.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/peter.kenneth.585 Peter Kenneth

    visit the site : http://www.abreq.com/……

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