“We have a team that is dedicated to running sting operations,” Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman told the Telegraph this week. “So we pose as review writers who are interested in selling reviews to whoever would like to buy them. It has been incredibly successful in that we have been able to catch businesses red-handed."
It is the first time Yelp has been so overt about the problem of fake reviews, which present a real threat to its business model. Stoppelman’s line is that Yelp does not have serious issues of this kind and is merely acting to prevent them from developing, but readers may be more cynical. In admitting the problem and outlining its aggressive strategy for tackling it, Stoppelman suggests that his company is staying one step ahead of rivals such as Facebook and Google, which also host review content but whose quality checks may be less stringent.
Having initially relied on software to detect fake reviews, Yelp moved on to a more proactive approach as users worked out ways to get around it. The current approach involves teams of Yelp staff posing as writers and offering to sell fake reviews. Crucially, rather than removing the profiles of offending businesses from the site, Yelp posts a notice on the site to let prospective customers know that they have been caught engaging in unethical behavior. Yelp has issued 285 of these notices so far and the affected businesses have seen their reputations decline sharply as a result.
The move comes just a month after Yelp itself was accused of unethical behavior in managing the reviews on its site. On December 19th the restaurant Yoon Sushi in Canton, Ga, complained that poor reviews of its business were highly visible on its profile page while five-star reviews had been relegated to the non-recommended section. Yoon Sushi put this down to the fact that it had declined to pay $299 a month for Yelp advertising and suggested that the review site was effectively trying to extort money from businesses. Yelp denied this and said that the process of allotting reviews to the recommended section or otherwise was an automatic one with no link to a business’s other activity on the site.
In talking to the press, Stoppelman is clearly hoping to scare off would-be fakers as well as to catch them. Some may still try to sneak around the system. It is an arms race in terms of techniques, Stoppelman suggests, but one that Yelp is determined to keep winning.