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Yelp dumps 'Favorite Review' feature, shows 'Filtered' write-ups

Yelp announced two changes to its review system last night that it hopes will quell accusations of extortion.

yelp_logo.jpg

First, the San Francisco-based site, which collects user reviews of local businesses, services and other places, will allow people to see write-ups that had been whisked out of sight by its automatic filter. Second, it will no longer offer establishments the option of paying extra to have a "Favorite Review" displayed atop its Yelp page.

Yelp's habits of hiding reviews based on criteria it has yet to explain in much detail (a cute video on its blog offers only generalities) and charging businesses for prominent displays of positive assessments have led critics to accuse it of running a protection racket. See, for instance, this story by my colleague Michael Rosenwald. There and elsewhere, Yelp has denied those claims.

Yesterday's changes make sense to me, but I don't see how they'll end this controversy. Yelp makes it a little too difficult to look up reviews that it had screened--you have to click on a small "Filtered" link at the bottom of an establishment's page, then type in a random series of characters to verify that you're a person and not a program--and leaves some mystery about what got them hidden.

Consider the situation with one establishment cited in Rosenwald's piece, the Scion restaurant in Dupont Circle. Yelp's page for it lists 43 reviews, with an average score of three and a half out of five stars. But when you look through the 27 reviews Yelp filtered, it's hard to see a clear pattern: Some five-star raves got canned, but so did some one-star pans of the place. Most of the filtered reviews came from users who had written few reviews and had no friends listed on Yelp, but having five Yelp friends did not help the cause of one reviewer.

A similar situation exists with Yelp's take on another local establishment, the Lincoln Memorial. Far more reviews went through; with 133 listed, only 11 were filtered. But it's hard to say what disqualified this informative, five-star write-up from a Canadian tourist:

You don't have to be American to love this spot. Lincoln will inspire you. Try to go on a weekday, because it's an absolute zoo on weekends in the summer.

Both the Scion and Lincoln Memorial filtered-listings pages also feature numerous blank reviews that Yelp says were removed, not just filtered, for "violating our Review Guidelines." Presumably, they were the same sort of crude spam that we try to junk automatically here, but you can only guess.

I don't envy Yelp's job. Setting up a system for user input that allows for dissent but keeps the conversation civil and informative has repeatedly taxed our abilities, as Post ombudsman Andy Alexander noted in his column Sunday. That piece reports that The Post will adopt a tiered system, in which comments from readers with a history of playing by the rules will be trusted while those from others will be hidden by default, but viewable on request--somewhat like Yelp's new regime.

Have a look at Yelp's listings of some of your favorite places and let me know in the comments if you think it's been fair in its filtering. If it's not, how would you change Yelp's system?

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By Rob Pegoraro  |  April 6, 2010; 10:16 AM ET
Categories:  Digital culture , Social media  
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Comments

I will see how the new review works. I wrote a review once for a restaurant in Baltimore called Meli. It was pushed down from the start, and now is filtered. I gave the restaurant is a very low rating for its absolutely horrendous service. I see that a few people have experienced the same thing. It became obvious that yelp was somehow skewing the results to give Meli a better ranking. After that I stopped relying on yelp.

Posted by: rcc_2000 | April 6, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

Without personally investigating each review, large scale review sites need some kind of system to maintain their integrity and encourage user and submitter trust. Just look what happened to epinions.com - full of old reviews and advertisements.

Yelp's system may be imperfect, but other than, possibly, tripadvisor.com, I have not found a user-contributed rating system that I trust more.

The Post.com has a long way to go to catch up. I frequently find no ratings for popular places.

Posted by: graceld99 | April 6, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

I just can't trust any "user" reviews. The anonymity of the Internet undermines all of these sorts of sites.

Of course, I may actually believe the opposite and am saying this just to troll you. How can you know the truth? Hence the problem.

Posted by: Dawny_Chambers | April 6, 2010 5:37 PM | Report abuse

Rob, thanks for pointing out Alexander's article; very interesting. I'll viist Yelp with a differnet attitiude now, about it now.Please stay on this story.

Posted by: Hattrik | April 6, 2010 6:16 PM | Report abuse

Amazon doesn't filter its reviews, and frankly, I think they're great. Yes, you have to read through the reviews and use a little judgment. I personally report reviews I read that I think are sketchy (and possible plants by someone with an interest in selling the product), but the vast majority of reviews I see are helpful.

The same goes for many clothing stores like Zappos or Anthropologie. It has gotten to the point that I won't buy anything on Anthropologie unless it's been reviewed first because the reviews are so helpful.

In my opinion, Google reviews are the next big thing. I've started leaving all of my restaurant reviews there. There are so many Google users, and you don't have to make a special trip to leave your review.

Posted by: kent_eng | April 6, 2010 6:18 PM | Report abuse

I've written a ton of Yelp reviews and have never had a single one hidden. I've only had one taken down for a TOS violation.

Yelp simply has to censor reviewers that write five or so reviews and then quit. That's clearly the pattern for the reviews that are removed. Very few reviews are removed from reviewers with more than 30 reviews, and those that are removed tend to read exactly like advertisements, eg: including the website of the restaurant within the review.

In my experience, Yelp leaves reviews by new reviewers up for at least a month or so. After that, deleting the reviews makes sense. First of all, they're not losing a whole lot of valuable data if they delete a whopping five reviews, and second of all, it really does look suspicious.

If you want your reviews to stay up, keep reviewing. Otherwise, your account looks like a scam account. It's pretty simple. Sure, I can see how if you have one absurdly terrible experience and want to share it without writing more reviews, it'd be frustrating to have it deleted, but that's the nature of the game. Otherwise, businesses would be writing reviews of themselves and their competitors constantly.

The TOS violations look sketchy, I admit. However, Yelp sends you an e-mail telling you your review has been taken down for a violation, and you're free to delete the review and write a new one with the same star rating.

Posted by: lesscryptic | April 6, 2010 9:58 PM | Report abuse

The challenge Yelp has, which they are obviously trying to overcome, is the clarity of which reviews get published and also which order those reviews appear in. It still is somewhat of a black box.
I run a similar type site with reviews but solely focussed on home improvement pros called HomeStars. We've been as upfront as we can about our process, and reviews must represent a transaction. (whereas with Yelp where a reviewer can go into a bar, not even order something, and write a review - which, really is fair enough)
I think Yelp will step out of this cloud when they are clear about both the order of the reviews and which reviews get published. It's entirely possible, and it'll help them get better traction with the potential customers.

Posted by: bsharwood | April 7, 2010 12:34 AM | Report abuse

Most experienced Internet Marketers/SEO types can see the subtleties in the language, words and mispellings that Yelp is keying on with their filters (probably both human and automated), to keep the Spam and Internet Marketing content low. It's really not a mystery at all, but won't be easily recognized as a "clear pattern" - since that's exactly what experienced online marketers know to avoid.

Posted by: EliseAvonym | April 7, 2010 7:32 AM | Report abuse

Better to use Help and eating reporters for review process.

Posted by: tossnokia | April 7, 2010 8:17 AM | Report abuse

I own two restaurants in Lynchburg, Virginia. My newest restaurant, Mangia, has terrible reviews on yelp. I was so upset by this, I could not imagine what was going on. Now, thanks to your article, I have read the filtered reviews. I feel much better knowing that there are some awesome reviews of my place, but I am still confused as to why they are all filtered!! Most of my filtered reviews are five star ratings, while the only 2 reviews that show up are not so good. In one of the reviews that is displayed, the reviewer clearly states that he has never even been to the restaurant, he just has the "scoop" on it. I understand that yelp feels the need to police all reviews submitted, but I don't like the current system. Maybe they could display them all, and just have them catagorized by good and bad, or rate them based on the number of time that reviewer has used yelp. As you stated in your article, I don't envy yelps job, but I have to be concerned that their system might effect MY job!

Posted by: chalmersmelanie | April 7, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

i really don't understand yelp's filtering process...and given their "explanation," i'm not supposed to. i thought maybe once i hit a certain number of posts, my reviews would finally start appearing on the businesses' main page. but i just put up my 6th post which showed up, but my other 5 reviews are still victim to the mysterious filter.

their concession in linking to the hidden reviews is very weak....no one is going to scroll down to the grayed out "filtered" section to read them...they even make you enter a captcha word before taking you to the page. i feel like such a second class citizen!

part of me wants to boycott yelp but the other part wants to keep posting so i can be considered a legit yelper! sneaky trick...

Posted by: erinferin | April 9, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

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