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Yelp Reviews: Can You Trust Them?

SMG prof finds competition fuels fake entries

Boston University BU, School of Management SMG, assistant professor George Zervas, yelp untrustworthy, competition marketing

Georgios Zervas, an SMG assistant professor of marketing, coauthored a study that should make online review followers tread with caution. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

If you’re combing Yelp reviews to decide where to eat, you’re likely to be misled or even duped, according to Georgios Zervas, coauthor of a recent study concluding that at least 16 percent of the reviews are fake. The researchers found that the worst offenders are restaurants seeking to offset negative write-ups, that chain restaurants are the least likely to commit review fraud, and that restaurants sometimes take the low ground by posting fraudulent negative reviews for establishments competing for the same customer base.

Although they make efforts to ensure the veracity of their content, sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Angie’s List remain easy prey, conclude Zervas, a School of Management assistant professor of marketing, and Harvard Business School’s Michael Luca (GRS’11) in their report Fake It Till You Make It: Reputation, Competition, and Yelp Review Fraud, now under review for publication.

The study was cited in a recent Wall Street Journal blogpost prompted by the New York attorney general’s recent Operation Clean Turf initiative uncovering manipulation in the reputation management industry. That investigation led to 19 companies agreeing to stop commissioning fake online reviews and facing fines of $350,000. After its results were reported on additional blogs and business news sites, Zervas’ study triggered a response from Yelp’s vice president for communications and public affairs on the site’s official blog. The study “confirms something we have long known: businesses that don’t have a good reputation online will try to create one by submitting phony reviews,” the response reads. Yelp says its filter algorithm sifts through its more than 42 million reviews, rooting out the 25 percent found to be fakes or submitted by the businesses themselves.

BU Today: Did you discover anything particularly surprising in your study?

Zervas: One thing that was slightly surprising, not so much to me but to most people, is the proportion of suspected fake reviews that Yelp removes—approximately one quarter of all reviews submitted to Yelp are not published. That’s about 10 million reviews.

What are some of the concerns your study raises?

The main concern is for firms like Yelp and TripAdvisor. Platforms that crowd-source reviews rely on the integrity of these reviews, and fraudulent reviews pose a major threat to their trustworthiness. Furthermore, consumers should be concerned that fake reviews are leading them to suboptimal choices, and businesses should be aware that some negative reviews might come from their competitors.

How much of an impact do sites like Yelp have on a business?

My coauthor Michael Luca did a great study on this and found that having an extra star on Yelp causes the revenue of a business to rise by 5 to 10 percent, so there’s a direct connection between Yelp ratings and a business’ bottom line.

How can consumers view these sites more critically?

I think there are many signals on Yelp that consumers can combine to make up their minds. The way I use Yelp is, I read individual reviews, trying to be aware not just of whether they’re fake, but beyond that, whether they come from consumers who are like myself. There are plenty of biases in reviews besides their being fake or real. The other thing I look at is the number of reviews a business has. I have a lot more faith in a business with 3½ stars and 100 reviews than I do in one with 4 stars and just 3 or 4 reviews. That’s common sense. Also, when available, you can use sites, like Expedia, that allow consumers to review a business only once it’s confirmed that they are paying customers.

Are there any data on who is more likely to write a review, those who had a terrible experience or those who had a great one?

Not in our study, but in general people seem more likely to contribute reviews after extreme experiences, either positive or negative.

Are the fake reviews the same as false advertising?

According to the Federal Trade Commission, a review is considered deceptive advertising if any material connection between the reviewer and the business being reviewed is not disclosed in the review. In a recent example of enforcing these regulations, the New York attorney general went after reputation management companies, which produce fake reviews in bulk.

How fine a line is there between a fake restaurant review and one written by a friend at the urging of the restaurant’s owner?

The friendship between the reviewer and the restaurant owner is a material connection—information that third parties reading the review might want to know before they buy a product or a service, and therefore it should be disclosed. So this review is still fraudulent.

How reliable are algorithms for weeding out fake reviews? In lay terms, what are the most prominent giveaways?

The answer is: I don’t know, because I don’t know what they’re doing—it’s something that companies like Yelp would rather keep secret. But from my experience reading many reviews over the past year, I think Yelp does a decent job of catching fake reviews.

Do some surviving reviews stand out as suspect?

Sometimes you might see people who have reviewed one or two businesses, but have zero other reviews, no friends on Yelp, and give glowing five-star reviews to these two businesses—that seems a bit fishy. Also, I remember one case cited in a recent New York Times article: someone wrote a wonderful five-star review for a dentist following a string of really bad one-star reviews; one of these one-star reviews mentioned that the dentist’s drill broke inside the patient’s mouth. Context can provide a lot of clues about what’s fake.

Isn’t this problem likely only to worsen?

Yes, as more consumers are basing their decisions on crowd-sourced reviews, there’s a greater incentive for businesses to cheat. And so far the consequences have been extremely small, though the New York fines are a small step in the right direction.

So what’s the best way to get reliable information?

Beyond online word of mouth, use off-line word of mouth if that’s available. Mine your own social network as much as possible.

Would the system benefit if more people made a habit of reviewing places they’ve patronized?

Yes, the more information we put online, the better the quality of the signal other consumers are going to get. More reviews will enhance the trustworthiness of review platforms. For example, currently there is a lot of self-selection among reviewers, who are usually more likely to write a review for extremely positive or extremely negative experiences. It would be much better if people also wrote about their moderate experiences.

What else can consumers to do keep these forums honest?

Most platforms provide tools on their websites for consumers to flag suspicious reviews. So beyond writing reviews of your own, you can flag a suspicious review, and the Yelp team will take a close look at it.

I know of a place that gets consistently scathing reviews for mistreating customers, especially those with children, yet people swarm there. Do negative reviews ever improve business?

Yes, there are cases when negative reviews might make you take positive action. For example, if I’m someone who doesn’t like children around me, that’s a good place for me to hang out. So, for businesses, there can also be positive value in negative reviews.

37 Comments

37 Comments on Yelp Reviews: Can You Trust Them?

  • Jessica on 11.04.2013 at 2:03 am

    On the other end of this is the fact that reviews are actually removed! I am a hairstylist and I had great (unsolicited) 5star reviews on yelp but shortly after leaving the salon one person gave the salon a bad review for the salon atmosphere without me and the bad prices but yelp quickly emailed her to let her know that her review was removed. Interestingly enough, so was her good review. Apparently yelp reviews are only for those with censored opinions of our local businesses. I for one will never trust in yelp again.

    • Callista Bond on 11.06.2013 at 11:29 am

      You are so right on this! But it can be a Negative for some. I have a stylist friend who has a 1 star ranking because of 1 review… but all of the 4-5 star rankings were blacklisted by Yelps “automated server” to crack down and only post “reliable reviews”. You can see the reviews that are “hidden” if you click the tiny link below the first review – of course those opinions don’t go towards the overall rating. It’s so nice to know that Yelp finds a business owners loyal customers as “unreliable” because they only have rated a few local business verse hundreds. Yelp is not a reliable source of reviews or ratings. I’ll be telling all of my clients from now on to use another resource for business reviews.

      • chuck on 05.17.2014 at 3:03 pm

        If you don’t pay Yelp fees, your real reviews for your customers get removed and the fake reviews stay on the website.

        We contacted Yelp legal many times with all the fake reviews but in vain. on the contrary they removed our real customer reviews.
        How a customer can review 3500 restaurant in one month? while his/her IP address indicate she is in china?
        This can only happen at Yelp. very unfortunate!

    • Shari smith dunaif on 02.15.2014 at 12:14 pm

      I negatively reviewed The Surf Lodge in Montauk New York, which has had numerous code violations and a terrible ecological impact on the community. My review was rejected. hmmmm.

      • sue on 02.07.2015 at 12:58 am

        It sounds like you never stayed there. you had an axe to grind.

  • JoAnn on 11.04.2013 at 11:05 am

    “So beyond writing reviews of your own, you can flag a suspicious review, and the Yelp team will take a close look at it.”

    I cannot find a button to flag a suspicious review on a Yelp review. There are buttons to choose useful, funny or cool. Even a button for “add owner comment”.

    Trip Advisor has two buttons on each review: “Was this review helpful?” and “Problem with this review?”

    • GZ on 11.04.2013 at 12:32 pm

      Hi JoAnn,

      To flag a review on Yelp you must first log in with your Yelp account. Otherwise you cannot see the “Flag review” button.

      Giorgos

  • Cooper on 11.04.2013 at 11:35 am

    Yelp removed my review, unfortunately negative, on a dog sitter. My dog was seriously injured by the business owners dog, so in my review I simply stated the facts of my dogs experience. The review was originally posted, but now it’s gone. I feel badly for people that may leave their pets with this business, they have no idea! Word of mouth is the only way to go for me.

  • F Hud on 11.04.2013 at 12:07 pm

    I know first hand that you pressure businesses to buy advertisements from you or you do not update their comments from customers..You place any new comments posted into the filtered comments section,pressuring the business to advertise with you. You keep 2 to 3 year bad comments in the current section and will not put in the new comments,
    This affects the business sales. I think this is black mail. I wonder how many businesses you do this too. That advertising salesperson s/b/fired and your company should receive a bad rating also.

    • June Schiada on 11.05.2013 at 3:15 pm

      I personally know a restaurant that had a difficult time for a while and received negative comments. they turned the business around and started receiving positive comments. After speaking with Yelp sales people and not wanting to sign up and pay, Yelp removed all the good comments and only negative old (I am talking 2 years) comments were left. He is still trying to deal with these scammers!

    • lisa smith on 11.07.2013 at 12:17 pm

      Yelp filtered off EVERY positive review and yes , contacted me wanting me to pay for advertising. Blackmail is right ! I don’t trust Yelp.

    • dede on 11.11.2013 at 6:31 pm

      I just received a phone call from Yelp today about advertising with them. I could not believe the nerve of them. Miraculously my one star review, just two weeks ago has now become a 4 star review….really? How did that happen?
      At the end of the conversation the little girl on the other end of the phone, who sounds like she just graduated from pre-school, was begging me to go on the DO NOT CALL list. I said NO WAY, I loved giving her a earful.
      I told her I want to hear all about her stupid NEW ADVERTISING PROMOTION.
      She is going to call me on Wednesday, so I will keep you posted on this company who makes their money through blackmail and extortion!!!!

  • Diceman on 11.04.2013 at 12:42 pm

    Yelp is out to destroy small businesses. The majority of reviews are not factual. They only post negative reviews and, like another comment said, they filter all the positive reviews. How does that help any consumer? Also it is impossible to speak to anyone at yelp. The company should be closed down and everyone that works at or invests in yelp should be stripped of everything they own and forced to live in the dirt like the cowards they are!!!

  • Ursula on 11.05.2013 at 12:16 pm

    Thank you so much for your article – Yelp Reviews: Can You Trust Them? It’s taken us 2 years but we’ve finally created an app that helps solve the Yelp problem. Our app – Chekplate is a social networking app for restaurants. You follow your friends and family and you can see their restaurant reviews so you know they are always real and trustworthy. It’s almost like Instagram but for restaurants. This eliminates all fake reviews; therefore, the consumer knows which restaurants they should eat at. If you have time, we’d love for you to checkout Chekplate (www.chekplate.com) and share any feedback you may have. I am going to share your article with my team, thanks again.

  • Lara on 11.05.2013 at 1:34 pm

    I’ve blogged about this before. It took me over a year to remove a fake one star review for one of my clients. And for another friend, she’s got numerous 5 star reviews that are valid, but because people don’t use yelp a lot, they get filtered. At least they aren’t removed.
    There will always be people doing unethical reviewing practices. All we can do is help Yelp to realize that it’s in their best interest to educate people on how to leave reviews and how to evaluate other reviews.

  • Kimberly Schramm on 11.05.2013 at 1:44 pm

    Fake reviews go both ways. I was a Marketing Director in the restaurant industry a few years ago. There was a long, very negative review of the restaurant, complaining about the over-use of several ingredients that were not used in any of the menu items offered. I assume that it was a competitor or else someone with an ego problem.

    Around that same time, I was contacted daily by a very aggressive sales rep at Yelp. It bordered on harassment.

  • Emily on 11.05.2013 at 1:49 pm

    Yelp 100% needs to work on their algorythm for filtering reviews. Our business currently has 33 filtered reviews and only 5 reviews posted publicly that apply towards our rating. From those 5 reviews (dating back to 2009), we are at 3 out of 5 stars. In the beginning, we simply were not active Yelp users and barely even knew it existed. Now, we actively monitor our reviews across the web because when there is a problem, we act on it and make it right. That is why review sites let people edit their reviews and that is the point of feedback and the sign of a great business – to make it right.

    From our 33 filtered reviews, if even a quarter of those filtered reviews were released to the public, we would no doubt be at 5 stars. The fact that they are hidden is a true shame and really negatively affects the customer experience before they even walk in our doors. We can track each one of the reviews back to a legitimate transaction, but unfortunately there is nothing we can do to prove to Yelp the review’s legitimacy. Yelp’s response is that those 33 reviewers are not “active” Yelp users and that once they do become active, the review will become public. Well, from what i can tell, this is false. Many of these reviewers are very active Yelp members with 5-10 other public reviews out there on other business’ pages. It is hugely frustrating when our own customers take the time to write a legitimate review for us and they fall on deaf ears. Customer service is our highest priority, and Yelp does not give us the chance to publicly diplay our reputation accurately.

    The fact is the other businesses writing those fake reviews out there have really screwed it up for everyone else and ultimately have rendered Yelp untrsutworthy.

    • Janet on 11.10.2013 at 12:15 am

      Emily and Chris E. & everybody else are correct. All of our businesses are penalized because of the cheaters who write or get fake reviews written! We are a customer service-based jewelry store in Beverly Hills. We have 40 REAL 5-star REVIEWS that are “filtered”, or hidden by yelp’s “computer algorythm,” they claim. But when I asked, they really can’t explain why all of our 5 -star reviews written in 2013 did not get put in public view, after we refused to advertise for $300 per month!
      Many of these reviews are written by busy Moms finally motivated to write their first review on yelp. They don’t have time to play the “friend” game on yelp.
      Yelp prints in tiny gray lettering where you can see filtered reviews, but then they make it so hard: you have to type in the rediculously unreadable “captcha” letters. They claim this is necessary to make sure “You Are Not A Robot.” So why can Robots read all the publicly visible reviews??
      Many of our businesses depend on customer reviews nowadays, and many of our clients have come to us because they depend on yelp too. I would be happy to pay a nominal charge, maybe $20 per month, if it meant we could have all our reviews visible. I guess customers should write more often if they want to be seen, and yelp should judge more carefully which writers are really fake.

    • sam on 02.10.2014 at 2:32 am

      Yelp is all about making money, i have a restaurant, in the past i was paying them money to be in the top of their page and they were reporting reviews fairly , but since i stopped putting add with them and stopped paying them money ,they now filter every good review i get from my customers, I wish they can go out of business and leav us alone.

  • Karri on 11.05.2013 at 1:50 pm

    There are two things business owners can do to make Yelp’s algorithm (and fraudulent reviews) a non-issue:

    1. Identify your most passionately vocal positive customers (your advocates) to share positive word of mouth about your business online and offline. Arm them with “insider” information about your business, treat them like gold, and make it easy for them to recommend your business.

    2. Regularly prompt customers to review your business on Yelp. If you do this as a routine part of your customer interaction, your customers will create enough legitimate reviews that one or two bad ones from your competitors don’t tank your star rating.

  • Deb on 11.06.2013 at 9:21 am

    I had never entered a review before but very spontaneously entered one on a spa and salon on Yelp (it was positive). I was pleased to see it posted – for about an hour – after which time it was yanked and the old reviews were returned. Unfortunately because of this experience I will probably not bother to ever enter a review again.

  • John Reznor on 11.06.2013 at 1:49 pm

    What all the commenters above seem to be missing is that Yelp is in business to make a profit (even though it is still unprofitable after 8 years). Yelp loves bad reviews, whether fake or not, because a bad review gives their very aggressive salespeople an angle to call a business and sell them advertising. The implication, never stated, is that advertising on Yelp ($300+/month, 12 months) will enable your bad reviews to disappear, and for your good reviews to be pulled out of the hidden “filtered box and into the light of day. Sometimes this happens, sometimes it doesn’t. Google “Yelp extortion” and prepare to be horrified.

    • lisa smith on 11.07.2013 at 12:28 pm

      You are so right ! This had been my experience with Yelp. I feel better not to be the only one to have had this kind of experience.

      • mary on 12.06.2013 at 9:03 pm

        Wel, the only thing I can definetely say is that Yelp can trully ruin your business reputation….This algorithn machine has no Idea what is fake reviews…I have a business and they took out all my reviews…leaving my business with 2 reviews and a huge bad review int he front..aff When I think I pay them 300 per month and have to see my business sinking down..darnnn

        • Satwant kaur on 03.08.2014 at 11:44 am

          I totally agree with yr comments, I’m in similar situation my husband had a heart bypass last year, I’m trying very hard to make ends meets with our small Restaurant business, each time I have real review, real person (no fake) it’s all filtered some never ever showed on the front page, everytime a negative review is stated, it will be there immediately & stay there for years!!! They demand I pay them (abt $700 plus to abt $350) for advertising which I did not & that is how they ruin my business they are truly doiing the EXTORTION!!!!

  • Chris E. on 11.06.2013 at 6:35 pm

    I own several dry cleaning locations and have many filtered reviews because they are not regular contributors to the Yelp community. I was at a dry cleaning conference a year ago where a Yelp representative was lambasted by several of my fellow industry members for many of the same comments I have read here. Lots of filtered reviews from good customers who took the time to write a positive review. He explained that they filter what they call “drive by” reviewers who are people who write one extremely positive or one extremely negative review and never log into their account again. I have had many 5 star reviews filtered, but I have also had a few 1 star reviews filtered by these “drive by” reviewers.

    I joined Yelp early on as a consumer and even had 1-2 of my own reviews filtered until I got to 10 or so reviews. Then those filtered reviews magically re-appeared.

    I have spent many hours over the past several years reading Yelp reviews and trying to figure out how small business can use these reviews to improve their business and to improve their reputation.

    The first thing is to create a business owners account and claim your listing. All this is free. Second thing is to respond privately to negative reviews with offers to “make it right”. This has worked 80% of the time and we have saved several customers who were so impressed that someone from “the company” was listening and would take the time to contact them. Of course there were some who didn’t respond (probably a competitor) and a couple who just wouldn’t let us try to fix their problem. Be careful about a public response. It can work, but tread lightly.

    Our strategy now is to ask customers “do you ever leave reviews on Yelp or Google+”? If they say they do, then we ask them to review us and share with others about our service. If they don’t, then we ask them to help us build our business by telling their friends. Both methods are good word of mouth. This way, we don’t waste their time asking for a review that will never be seen, and getting our blood pressure up because another good review was filtered.

    I have been contacted several times by Yelp asking for advertising, but I have resisted the urge to do so. I have never seen any reprucations from turning them down.

    All in all, you can complain about Yelp, you can ignore it, or you can embrace it and make it a positive for your business. Your choice. People are always going to talk about you.

  • Ryan Riley on 11.17.2013 at 5:05 pm

    This is something I have heard of on a few different occasions but I didn’t know there was any way of actually tracking it and fining companies. I’m happy to see justice served and I hope that leads to less fake reviews. I am also glad to see steps in a positive direction with algorithms that sort through fake reviews. I’m sure there are some real reviews that get cut and some fake ones that slip by, but everything is progress at this point I suppose.

    • mary on 12.06.2013 at 9:15 pm

      I totally disagree with you Ryan… as I mentioned before…I HAVE AT LEAST 22 GOOD REVIEWS YELP FILTERED. INCLUDING REVIEWS OF CLIENTS WHO USE YELP FOR AT LEAST A YEAR, HAVE PROFILE PICS AND ALSO HAS REVIEWED OTHERS BUSINESS.. I also have new clients that happily found me at yelp and decided to write a review to say thank u…yelp has taken or filtered or stollen…whatever all of them . SO what yelp does is just can ruin small business to the point that you have no credit or not to be seen from new future clients. THis machine doesn not know anything…all my reviews are good and they filtered every single one…YELP IS THE WORSE WAY TO MAKE YOUR BUSINESS GROW…THEY CAN HELP A BIG BUSINESS, BUT SMALL BUSINESS CAN REALLY BE HURT WITH ALL YELP DIRTY METHODS

  • David on 12.20.2013 at 10:23 am

    I have a modest home goods-related consignment shop. Twice “reviewed” by Yelp bloggers who did a quick walk through which did not involve any interaction with employees. Not exactly customers, but these Yelpers felt compelled to write negative reviews in a semi-illiterate fashion. In fact, the second review was so vague I’m not sure he was referring to my business. Furthermore, he lowered my rating to 1 star from 3 after I confronted him about his qualifications. What the hell does my email to him have to do with my store’s level of competency?

    Some of these reviewers aren’t qualified to rate the cleanliness of a gas station washroom. Maybe Yelp should focus on the relevancy of a review.

  • Stu gatso on 03.11.2014 at 8:12 am

    If you see some one advertising on yelp shoot them a negative review that wlll dry up yelps advertising revenue soon enough and kill yelp, Don’t support yelp with your advertising dollars or your reputation and good will will take a beating.

  • Gina on 02.25.2015 at 9:46 am

    I have also had concerns that yelp is not an accurate review site. Their are many websites that allow small business owners to post their information with and without reviews. Yelp charges really high fees for a service that you can get else where for free. Too bad they have false ratings. Sites like this would be so helpful if they were honest.
    Incidentally, I use an electronic medical records service that was, without my knowledge, soliciting reviews. Thank goodness every review was positive although many people rated me four of five stars. These ratings are only from actual patients, but getting rave reviews followed by four of five stars shows that internal validity is lacking. It isn’t just the websites, but honest raters who don’t seem to get how to score correctly!

  • Charles W on 04.22.2015 at 10:40 am

    Because they damaged my furniture when they moved me, I posted negative reviews of 2 movers: My Guys Movers in Fort Lauderdale and another mover in DC. Yelp removed both reviews after one month. Yelp does not allow negative reviews to stay posted. Yelp is not telling the truth and is not protecting users from disreputable companies. DO NOT BELIVE WHAT YOU READ ON YELP. BEWARE!

  • Cha on 09.28.2015 at 2:58 am

    Half the time its the ones that are upset doing the reviews. If every good customer made a review, it would be flooded. The amount of business is enough to tell you if the business is good or bad.

  • Sam on 10.09.2015 at 3:57 am

    Be careful about Yelp website, they always mislead people by giving wrong reviews. They dont know some stupid customers write anything about tradies (trade people)

  • Muffy on 12.20.2015 at 5:55 pm

    What’s to stop a restaurant from having its own blog, with a comment form to fill out: day and time of your visit, name of server and quality of service, what you ordered, value for the money, and anything else the establishment wants to know. The comments can be monitored by the owner or whomsoever. And post a sign in the window or have tear-off pads at the cash or tables: Visit our blog and tell us what you think. Blogs are free to set up and can be as plain or as fancy as you wish.

  • Stephen York on 06.27.2016 at 11:42 am

    I give Yelp zero stars: I was actually, naively it turns out, thinking Yelp was a platform to assist the consumer community in red-flagging negative (or positive) experiences with a business. I was very disappointed when Yelp nixed my honest from-the-heart appraisal of a horrendous corruption scam from a Psychic in Lake Tahoe, CA. I wanted to give a heads up to my brothers and sisters out there in commerce land to beware of being scammed. Instead they relegate my review to the ‘not recommended’ grey area. Eliminated by AI (artificial intelligence) no less. Obviously Yelp is pro trans-humanism! Yelp probably couldn’t abscond $$ for advertising from the business in question and threw me in the trash instead. I resent that! I now know that Yelp is just another shifty, for-profit-at-any- cost, dishonest broker in an already over-the-top corrupt business world here in the USA. No big surprise. But I am disheartened however. Seems like LACK OF iINTEGRITY has become trendy, fashionable and condoned in this country. No more Yelp ever…I am terminating my profile and will bypass Yelp and will one-finger-salute anything that Yelps at me in the future. Enough with the corruption!!

  • Hunter on 11.03.2016 at 1:35 am

    I do not trust yelp anymore. I wrote a negative review on a coffeehouse in Denver, only to have the owner of this coffeehouse have Yelp remove my truthful review.
    Why should I bother taking the effort to review a place if ownership bumps a honest review off.
    I’ve never had this happen with TripAdvisor, so I just quit using Yelp.

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