Yelp has found a work-around for those wicked extortion rumors (and that pesky lawsuit). In a blog post with the no-nonsense headline "We're Increasing Transparency and Eliminating 'Favorite Review'," Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman explains its plans. The "transparency" part is met by allowing users to see reviews that would otherwise have been obscured by the review filtering system. Whereas the Favorite Review part sees this entire segment of the advertising package deleted from Yelp.
As community-driven review sites become more popular, and increasingly impact the success of local businesses, expect to see more solutions like this one.
Yelp should have been more transparent all along. There are plenty of sophisticated commenting system out there that have similar features already. It's equivalent to the way Digg lets you actually see "buried" comments about a submission by choosing clicking on them, with the assumption that they may have been unfairly buried by nefarious Diggers. But Yelp's old system, once it had detected (or perhaps been "told" to detect) a suspicious review, simply hid it from all user's eyes. This opened Yelp's system to potentially abusive behavior.
While the filter ostensibly worked to obscure overly-hateful reviews, or perhaps overly-favorable ones that came from employees of the businesses concerned, it also could have allowed Yelp to bury unfavorable reviews. This ability is at the heart of the recent lawsuits against Yelp, which allege that Yelp attempted to extract cash from businesses in return for burying the bad reviews.
The Favorite Review system--where Yelp advertisers could pay to have favorable customer reviews prominently featured--is mentioned in the lawsuit too. Yelp sales people allegedly offered to bury bad reviews in exchange for buying ad space. That means companies with deeper pockets could pay for the good review to be promoted, even if their actual quality of service wasn't as good as, say, a competitor who is less cash-rich (we're talking about small local businesses here). While there is no hard evidence of this happening, Yelp's system does open the possibility for it to take place.
Yelp, of course, says nothing like this in its blog post, which is a shame. Instead it again tries to fob all the alleged extortion off as a misunderstanding: "Despite our best efforts to educate consumers and the small business community, myths about Yelp have persisted" is one killer line. And they go on to note that this new power to "'look under the hood' will help everyone understand the lengths we've taken to ensure Yelp is the most trusted resource on the internet for connecting people with great local businesses." Does this sounds like a company making conciliatory moves to its primary customers unwillingly, trying to educate its confused users about how it really works...or a company that's embracing the notions it's got things wrong, and that the customer is always right?
Nevertheless, it's good news. As a Yelp user if you want to see all the reviews on a particular business you can click on a new link and see the ones that are filtered...and then make your own mind up about their veracity. Yelp's also announcing the addition of video powers to slideshows on each businesses's Yelp front page, which is a nice move to help small companies promote their wares better.