Yelp doesn’t get the best reviews these days.
Check the company’s own business page on its website, and you’ll find a laundry list of single-star reasons why people have come to mistrust the reviews hub: high-profile scandals, accusations of censorship, conspiracy theories.
“They suppress real customer reviews that don’t fit into their utopian view of what a review should be,” said one representative user. “Stop trying to social engineer and steer consumers by picking the winners and losers.”
Yelp isn’t alone. The internet and the explosion of smartphone ownership have made the opinions of anyone with an internet connection an indispensable part of almost every consumer decision. Whether you’re in the market for a new car, wandering into a coffee shop, or browsing store aisles, there’s a good chance you might weigh the collective wisdom of the crowd.
Unfortunately, online reviews are a mess. They’re still the first stop for consumers looking to buy stuff, but also the scene of an ongoing battle between conflicted platforms, aggressive businesses, and angry customers.
Businesses know this, and they’re still working to game the system. From mattress startup Casper to online travel site TripAdvisor, plenty of companies have been found to be manipulating reviews. The credibility of such reviews has been increasingly called into question in recent years by skeptical studies, controversies around fake reviews, and conflicts of interest that compromise the integrity of review sites. At a time when Russia has shown how easy it is to manipulate online discourse, online reviews—especially crowdsourced ones—are hard to trust.
The result is an online review scene rife with conflicts of interest and shady practices.
Not that the average consumer cares. Around four in five Americans now turn to reviews when buying something for the first time, and around half say they’re generally accurate, according to Pew Research.
The good news is that people are getting a bit more savvy.
“I do believe that people make their purchases off highly rated products—just as I do—but there is a good deal of skepticism if reviews skew positive with little to no negative commentary,” said Tamar Weinberg, a marketing consultant and author. “I think the concept of ‘is it too good to be true?’ rings loudly in their minds.”
Skepticism towards online reviews may come in part from a more general growing public distrust of the media, advertising, and other businesses and institutions people encounter online. Consumer reviews from news sites place even lower by some scales.
People are more cognizant of the potential conflicts of interest inherent to the business model of any site collecting reviews for a profit. Sites like Yelp or TripAdvisor have an incentive to sell advertising—often in the form of boosted positive reviews—to the same establishments being assessed. E-commerce sites are obviously looking to make a sale at the end of the day.
Any hint that those undergirding forces might be compromising the impartiality of a source is an immediate turnoff, said Julius Kurushko, strategy director at review-tracking firm ReviewMonitoring. Even a simple promoted review that’s clearly marked can tank trust in the site overall.
“What we’ve seen is there were sites that would incentivize reviews,” Kurushko said, “and well-known retail sites would syndicate those reviews, and it just completely destroys trust.”
After several episodes of bad press over fake reviews, extortion allegations, and filtering, Yelp claims to have installed a bulwark against fraud and bias. Yelp spokesperson Anna Paladini laid out a host of measures the site takes to ensure the fairness of reviews, including software that decides whether or not to “recommend” a submission, a team of vetters, and a consumer alerts web hotline.
The company currently recommends around three quarters of all submitted reviews, according to Paladini. Those that don’t make the cut may be “fake, biased, solicited, or unhelpful rants and raves.”
“Fake reviews do exist online,” Paladini said. “As efforts to game the system evolve, we’ll continue to implement new protections.”
Yet as recently as this August, researchers trained an artificial intelligence network to write convincing Yelp reviews that could slip by the site’s vetters.
There is plenty of other reason to believe consumer doubts about impartiality aren’t necessarily unfounded.
In the niche world of mattress blogging, a controversy is brewing over one company’s strong-arming tactics. Casper, the top brand in the fast-growing bed-in-a-box industry, has been suing people over reviews it claims are unfair. It even lent one site money to buy another before revising the review of its products to make it more positive, according to a report in Fast Company.
Even outside of the company’s shady practices here, many of these bloggers enter into affiliate programs through which they get a commission for every product a reader buys, a common practice across editorial reviews in many industries.
Travel review site TripAdvisor has faced criticism in recent weeks over its deletion of accounts of sexual assault at various hotels. The company cited its policy on “family-friendly” language as its reason for the removal and hastily apologized. It’s since rolled out a new tag to identify establishments where such incidents have occurred.
Review sites, even those that collect crowdsourced accounts are essentially advertising-driven media sites, and thus subject to the same tug-of-war between promoting brands and maintaining public trust as the rest of the industry. Those incentives will always be there, and the more obscure the category and the less public accountability, the more entanglements can fester.
Despite all the effort, the drive on the part of businesses to cleanse bad reviews isn’t even always in their own best interest. Studies show that consumers trust reviews more when a sample includes at least a few negative responses. These are oftentimes read first.
“If there is only positive bias toward a product, it doesn’t look natural. They pick up on that,” Weinberg said. “The smart consumer ends up weighing the positives and negatives of the products based on the most positive and most critical reviews.”
The other big worry about bias is fake reviews; the notion that either businesses themselves or their competitors might game the system with floods of fake positive or negative testimonials. Seedy online firms have even popped up solely to serve this purpose, though most big sites have been cracking down on them for years.
An investigation from the Los Angeles Times found that WeedMaps, the go-to reviews site for pot smokers trying out new dispensaries, was rife with phony entries. A car dealership recently paid the Federal Trade Commission $3.6 million after the agency found that it had planted fake reviews, the latest in a long list of such cases in the automobile retail industry.
Amazon has set the standard for dealing with these potential bad actors in the online shopping world, according to Kurushko. The internet giant has gradually upped the bar for who can post reviews, first requiring customers to have spent at least $5 and then, more recently, raising the minimum to $50. It also began displaying only verified reviews—those from people who actually bought the product on the site—by default.
The rest of the retail industry has followed suit on this type of vetting to varying extents, Kurushko said.
“Other retail sites have either picked it up from Amazon or figured it out themselves,” he said.
Safeguards like these are proven to help, but rebuilding trust can be a slow process across the board, and perception is easily tainted by a minority of bad actors.
In any case, though, the lack of trust doesn’t seem to indicate that online reviews are going anywhere anytime soon.
“It is hard to move away from crowdsourced reviews,” Weinberg said. “There is generally distrust, yes, but there is strength in numbers…The crowd still knows.”