Sunday, February 22, 2009

Ethics and Online Reviews

A friend pointed out a recent article on CNN questioning the integrity of Yelp. Here's the gist. The East Bay Express claimed advertisers were being subjected to questionable tactics in order to get them to advertise on Yelp. The promise was that negative reviews would be taken down. The threat was that positive reviews would disappear or negative ones would appear if a business owner declined to advertise with Yelp. A dozen business owners said they experienced this form of blackmail. Some compare these tactics to the mafia demanding protection money. "The local neighborhood protection racket has just moved to the web," said one anonymous source.

Yelp admits that they pay "scouts" and "ambassadors" to write reviews. In some cases, businesses that received negative reviews from paid Yelpers were then asked to advertise.
This brings into question - how authentic and how accurate are the reviews on Yelp?  

And it isn't just Yelp that can manipulate the ratings. One irate customer can post an unfair negative review and encourage friends to also post negative reviews. One restaurant owner related that a customer was angry that the business was closed for a private event and went on Yelp, accusing the employees of being unsanitary. There have also been cases of one competitor slamming another. 

The biggest challenges faced by Yelp as well as, Google Local and Yahoo Local is how to encourage ethical user behavior, high-quality reviews and still make money. Whether true or not, there is the appearance of a conflict of interest when the businesses being reviewed are the ones being solicited to advertise. But this is unlikely to change.

So, how can you tell when a review is legitimate?  The simple answer is you can't. That's all part of web 2.0. Everyone is free to have an opinion, but you don't necessarily have to believe everything you read. Be a critical thinker.

So here's what I do:

1.  Review the reviewer. I investigate the poster's other reviews to see if they are always positive, always negative, or if there seems to be a balance. If this is the only review from this poster and it's particularly negative, I weigh that information.  If the poster has posted a good number of reviews about a variety of establishments, with well-reasoned criteria, I give their opinions more weight.

2. There's safety in numbers. It's not as easy to manipulate the results when an establishment has dozens of reviews.

3. Severity of the "infraction".  Is the complaint that the waitstaff were surly or that there were multiple health code violations?

4. Compare reviews on several different websites.

And if all this seems too much trouble, then just throw a dart to decide where you will eat tonight.

Do you have a solution? Let us know.

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