Head of user operations Noorie Malik wrote in a blog post, “Have you ever seen a Consumer Alert banner over a business’ reviews while browsing around Yelp? These warnings appear when we see brazen attempts to manipulate ratings and reviews. The Consumer Alerts program (part of Yelp’s broader Consumer Protection Initiative) launched in 2012. In 2019, we issued more than 1,300 Consumer Alerts, which run the gamut from identifying attempts to purchase reviews, to informing consumers about businesses that may be getting attention more for their high profile in the media than their customer service.”
Yelp said that in total, more than 1,500 users reported cases to its user operations team in 2019.
Consumer alerts were placed on over 580 business pages when disproportionate numbers of positive reviews originated from the same IP address, and this was most common among restaurants (11.6% of all IP address alerts) and automotive businesses (11%).
Malik wrote, “Contrary to what some may believe, businesses do not receive this alert simply because they have reviews that came from the business’ Wi-Fi. Instead, we look for egregious instances where many positive reviews appear to come from a single IP address in a manner that indicates a concerted effort to improve a business’s reputation on Yelp.”
More than 300 business pages received Consumer Alerts after Yelp received evidence or tips that people were being incentivized for new or updated reviews, or offered compensation in return for removing critical reviews.
Malik said offers of this type are typically made via social media posts, email, text message or in-store signage, adding that this type of Consumer Alert was more prevalent in home services (17%) and restaurants (13%).
Yelp added Consumer Alerts to over 35 pages after determining that someone associated with those businesses tried to stifle free speech.
Malik wrote, “Reviewers have a First Amendment right to express their honest opinions on Yelp, and we regularly promote and defend their ability to do so. More than one-third (37.7%) of our Questionable Legal Threat alerts were placed on pages of home services businesses. Often, businesses receive this alert because they have included a gag clause in their contracts with consumers—something that’s illegal under the Consumer Review Fairness Act, a federal law Yelp helped pass in 2016.”
Yelp’s user operations team helped clean up the pages of over 450 businesses who saw influxes of reviews that were motivated by news events, rather than by actual customer experiences.
Malik shared the following examples:
- Yelp removed over 2,000 reviews last year that were not based on first-hand experiences, but on headlines created, either deliberately or accidentally, for things related to President Donald Trump or his administration.
- When former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was confronted at a restaurant in Lexington, Va., in 2018, an Unusual Activity Alert was triggered on that restaurant’s page, and it reappeared last summer after the owner of the business published an op-ed in The Washington Post.
- Allegations of bedbugs flooded the page for the Trump National Doral golf club in Miami after Trump said he wanted to host the 2020 G7 summit there.
- Hotel properties owned by former U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland were affected after his impeachment testimony, with Unusual Activity Alerts being placed on 21 Provenance Hotels pages.
- Over 1,100 reviews were removed after fans used Yelp to defend their favorite celebrities, including: a restaurant whose owner posted an Instagram video of K-pop superstars BTS; a coffee shop owner who was upset when National Basketball Association stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George signed with the Los Angeles Clippers; and a Sephora store where singer SZA was disrespected.
Challenges also reared their ugly heads again in 2019.
YouTube users began challenging one another to capture their experiences at the worst reviewed businesses in their areas on video, and Yelp removed more than 80 reviews that resulted from this challenge.
In 2017, someone wrote a Yelp review about a possum eating off of someone’s table at an Arby’s, which got the location its first Unusual Activity Alert. Roughly 30 suspicious possum-related reviews were removed from Yelp last year.
Yelp added new Suspicious Review Activity alerts to business pages in January to warm users when businesses are potentially participating in deceptive review ring.
Malik wrote that as of late February, 294 Suspicious Review Activity alerts were issued to pages, and roughly 550 user accounts were terminated for participating in one of those rings.
She concluded, “With more than 205 million reviews across millions of business pages, deceptive intent is the exception rather than the rule on our platform. We take attempts at review manipulation very seriously and have measures in place to protect business owners and maintain the integrity of our content to help people find the right local business for them. Our investigators often rely on leads from the community to identify potential bad actors. Most Consumer Alerts are removed from affected Yelp business pages after 90 days if the offending behavior stops. Our team of investigators are constantly on the lookout to protect the integrity of information on Yelp, including through tips from the community.”