« Lady Justice Needs a Lawsuit Filter.... | Main | We're Increasing Transparency and Eliminating 'Favorite Review' »

March 01, 2010

Additional thoughts on last week's lawsuit, or How a Conspiracy Theory is Born

(The following is a continuation of my blog post from last Friday.)

I have said that false allegations that Yelp manipulates reviews for money ignore empirical evidence to the contrary and instead rely on conspiracy theories. In this post -- aimed at folks who want to take a deep dive into how Yelp works and why there might be confusion -- I want to directly address two major myths at the heart of these allegations and explain how a conspiracy theory is born.

Myth #1: Yelp offers to remove or reorder reviews in exchange for money.

Truth: Yelp Sales Representatives sell sponsored search results, enhanced listings and targeted advertisements. Period.

Advertising and content on Yelp is like the separation of Church and State: with the exception of a single review at the top of their review list (clearly marked as such), advertisers gain no control over how reviews appear on their business page. So what do Yelp advertisers get? Two things:

1. Page enhancements --

(a) 1 clearly marked "Favorite review" that appears at the top of the review list. Here's a screenshot of what that single review at the top looks like.

(b) 1 animated photo slideshow. To see what this looks like, check out our own Yelp page in the top right corner.

2. Targeted ads. It's simply an SEM product. In this way, our local business advertising model is very similar to that of major search engines. A single ad for the advertiser business -- again, clearly marked as such -- appears above organic search results and/or in the center of similar business's Yelp listings. For an interactive demo of this SEM ad product, go here.

The two-piece product described above is the only thing our local ad sales team sells.

Myth #2: Yelp's sales department has the ability to suppress and/or add reviews (and this ability is somehow used to coerce would-be advertisers or punish businesses that decline to advertise)

Truth: Our entire sales department is prohibited from creating any review content on the site. No member of the sales department has the administrative capability to remove reviews.

We take the church/state separation thing seriously. Sales representatives (also known as Account Executives or "AEs") cannot write reviews on Yelp. This is clearly communicated internally, and employees within the sales department are trained and re-trained that any deviation from these high standards would result in their termination. (Don't take our word for it. Here's a link to a discussion with one of our former employees, Jon Bishop, mentioning his inability to modify content during his time as an AE.)

Despite hundreds of AEs making thousands of points of contact via email and over the phone with potential advertisers every single day, no evidence in the form of an email or phone recording has ever emerged to suggest any member of our sales team has misrepresented the product described above. (And, of course, if anyone ever did bring such an email or phone call to our attention, you'd better believe we'd do something about it.) In addition, we layer extensive safeguards in place to ensure our advertising product is communicated clearly to would-be advertisers.

We employ Account Managers and require them to complete a verbal check-list with new advertisers within 48 hours of agreeing to advertise with Yelp. Just in case they missed it in the contract itself, advertisers are reminded reviews and advertising are unrelated. Following the call, advertisers are directed to this survey. In the rare instance an advertiser answers "No" to any of the questions within #4, the advertiser is called, and this aspect of the program is re-explained. If the business owner still believes a connection exists between their ads and reviews, we provide a refund to the advertiser and the sales representative receives no commission. This ensures no incentive exists for an Account Executive to "go rogue".

So why do these myths continue to live?

We'll be the first to admit that, by conventional standards, Yelp can seem weird. We're different than other review sites and that can throw people off. The main basis for confusion: Yelp has an automated system in place that helps to maintain the legitimate quality of content. This automated system often removes reviews from business pages that people don't want removed.

What does that even mean?

It means through an automated software algorithm, we filter reviews that might be shills or malicious spam. Because this is a difficult task, sometimes that results in legitimate reviews being suppressed from business pages.

It's worth repeating: Legitimate content, i.e. real reviews, will sometimes not appear on a business page.

It's counter-intuitive, right? You'd think we would want as much content on Yelp as possible, so why wouldn't we show all of it?

We've written in depth as much as we can about our review filter and why we believe it to be inherent to Yelp's value proposition, including in this blog post. We accept the high cost of this approach to avoid the fate of predecessors' failed models: When people trust our content, everyone wins -- businesses (get traffic to their business pages) and users (discover great local businesses). We purposely stop short of describing the review filter's mechanics as it's a Catch 22: the more descriptive we are about what makes an established user or a valued review, the less effective our filter is at fighting shills and malicious content. Spammers become super-spammers; consumers stop trusting the site; businesses stop receiving traffic to their listings. Everyone loses.

Why might some business owners think Yelp is shady? Here's the anatomy of a typical Yelp conspiracy theory:

Step 1. Business owner gets a sales call from Yelp that explains an advertising product which seems nuanced; hears stuff like "Favorite review at top" and "Enhance your presence". Business owner eventually decides, "Thanks, but no thanks on the ads, Yelp."

Step 2. Business owner newly-exposed to Yelp decides it’s interesting and aggressively solicits all their family and friends to write reviews.

Step 3. We've already cautioned against this practice and this is why: a few days later, our automated filter suppresses the suspicious-looking reviews.

Step 4. Business assumes algorithmic process in Step 3 is actually a Yelp employee manually punishing the business for declining to advertise in Step 1.

Optional Step 5. Now-angry business finds the Orly Taitz of internet lawyers who may or may not have read about our recent funding round.

As I've said, many might say we're weird, but we have nothing to hide. We're doing things differently, but we have never and will never extort businesses; the accusation is beyond ludicrous. In fact, it's deeply ironic that the very mechanisms and processes we've created to preserve Yelp's integrity generate these accusations that we have no integrity.

Millions of people rely on Yelp each week to figure out where to spend their hard-earned money and thousands of business owners benefit from the word-of-mouth Yelpers provide. We know this case is without merit, and we will continue to fight these false claims aggressively, as well as fight the guys who are actually being shady with reviews.