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In Praise of Fake Reviews

Ralph Goings, Shinbashi, 2002yelp-383

Yelp’s self-interest, rather than any objective set of criteria, is what determines a “real” review.







In August, Botto Bistro of Richmond, California—a no-nonsense restaurant with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude and a loyal clientele—set out to become the worst-reviewed restaurant on Yelp, offering a 25 percent discount to customers who would give it a one-star rating. The owners claimed that Yelp had been relentlessly pestering them to buy advertising on the site; they decided enough was enough, and retaliated to show just how little they needed Yelp.

Botto Bistro is not alone in its dislike of Yelp’s sales tactics, which some businesses see as a kind of protection racket. Just as Google’s search-results pages hold both paid-for advertising listings and “organic” listings generated by user searches, so Yelp displays both advertising and “real reviews by real people.” Some believe that Yelp manipulates these “real reviews” to show positive ones more prominently for establishments that advertise with them and to highlight negative reviews for those that don’t. You can find thousands of such complaints: in the Los Angeles Times; on a Reddit Ask Me Anything session with Yelp’s CEO; even at Yelp’s Yelp page. Yelp contends that the ads and user reviews are kept separate, but the potential for conflict of interest in its control of how both are displayed is obvious.margin-ad-right

For Botto Bistro the issue shouldn’t matter. Its owners no longer want anything to do with Yelp and don’t even want to be listed on the site. The catch is, they can’t opt out. Here is one of Yelp’s Common Questions:

Can I have my business listing information removed from Yelp?

Consumers have the right to talk about what they like (and don’t like) about a meal they ate, a plumber they hired, or a car wash they visited. We don’t remove business listings, so your best bet is to engage with your fans and critics alike, and hear what they have to say.

That same patronizing tone was on display in Yelp’s response to Bistro Botto’s stunt. As Cyrus Faravar of Ars Technica reports, “Marvin” from Yelp sent Botto Bistro co-owner Davide Cerretini an email that began like this:

Hi Davide,

I’m contacting you from the Yelp User Support Team because we’ve received complaints from the community that you may be offering incentives in exchange for reviews.

To be clear, this violates our Terms of Service…

After accusing Cerretini of violating the terms of a service he never asked for, the email goes on to threaten “a Consumer Alert being placed on your listing.” Botto Bistro responded by bolstering its campaign, and in early October it succeeded in reducing the restaurant’s rating to the lowest possible value, with the help of over a thousand one-star supporters.

Botto Bistro’s irresistibly cheeky campaign suggests there may be a legitimate place for so-called fake reviews on ratings sites. It also indicates the raised stakes over just who gets to define the meaning of the word fake in the emerging online-reputation industry.

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At first glance, it seems obvious what “fake” reviews are: a straightforwardly Bad Thing. If a restaurateur rewards or pays a person to submit a review (maybe someone who has not even eaten at the restaurant), then that review is “fake” and potentially liable for legal action: Last year, as the New York Times reported, New York regulators carried out a sting operation that got “19 companies to cease their misleading practices and pay a total of $350,000 in penalties.”

“What we’ve found is even worse than old-fashioned false advertising,” said Eric T. Schneiderman, the New York attorney general. “When you look at a billboard, you can tell it’s a paid advertisement — but on Yelp or Citysearch, you assume you’re reading authentic consumer opinions, making this practice even more deceiving.”

But “fake” is not necessarily “false.” Schneiderman was not concerned with the factual accuracy of the reviews but with their inauthenticity. In a 2012 article, law professor James Grimmelman writes that most ratings can be seen in one of two ways: they may aspire to be facts, or they may be opinions. Schneiderman portrays individual ratings as opinions; an “authentic” rating is a true fact about a reviewer’s opinion, and as such, the promise of reward would pollute a review’s authenticity.

Of course, most advertisements consist of paid (“inauthentic”) endorsements, and there are now many places where advertisement and “authentic” comment are mixed up (Twitter streams, Facebook feeds). The claim that “false” endorsements on Yelp are q1especially deceptive because they are not labeled as ads seems a little dated in a climate of product placements, viral marketing stunts, and “personal branding.” Are reviews written for attention any more or less authentic than ones written for money? Also, in many contexts, branding activities are seen as legitimate precisely because their cost is an expression of a brand’s commitment to staying in the market. They are akin to building banks out of marble to impress upon customers their intended permanence. Yet Yelp gets legal support in prohibiting this kind of expression on its site, ensuring that Yelp can claim any money a firm might spend to establish its legitimacy there. In essence, Yelp is a replica city where not only does a Yelp-owned shingle hang for every business that exists but Yelp has a monopoly on all the billboards as well.

While businesses are highly limited in how they express themselves on Yelp, Yelp itself is remarkably free of constraints. A restaurateur may complain that a reviewer’s opinion is not based on fact, but that’s not Yelp’s problem: Reviews are protected speech and from a legal standpoint, opinions can be both “authentic” and wrong. In addition, it is well known that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects website owners from being responsible for user-provided content on their sites, even when that content is the source of profit. The protection extends to Yelp, as one judge ruled in 2011 and another reaffirmed in September 2014.

So Yelp is free to encourage user content even when it comes at the expense of the individual firms it needs as raw material. And it exercises this freedom: While Yelp forbids restaurants and reviewers from engaging in reciprocal rewards, it is not averse to a few giveaways itself to stimulate more user content. Each year, Yelp rewards some reviewers by anointing them “Yelp Elite Squad” members; among the benefits are some “epic parties.“ Who pays for these? Here is what Yelp’s official blog says:

The venues themselves typically provide the space, some staff and sometimes food or drink. This arrangement is great for yelpers because we can visit a new place and meet each other affordably. And it works well for the venues and sponsors because they get exposure to a group of local adventurers who, if they like what they see, may become future customers.

There’s a clear if implicit quid-pro-quo: free stuff for reviews. Yelp is seemingly fine with these kinds of relations between restaurants and reviewers, as long as the site itself mediates them. According to the Chicago Tribune, cupcake shop owner Patty Rothman was approached in 2009 by a Yelp staffer who “walked into her Gold Coast shop and ‘guaranteed us good reviews on the site if we catered one of their parties for free’. Offended but resigned, Rothman complied. And just as promised, positive reviews bloomed for the business right after the party, Rothman said.” Likewise the owners of Big Gay Ice Cream in New York who, according to this story in restaurant industry site Eater,

got an email from a so-called “Elite” Yelper that read, “I am going to bring a team of other Elite Yelpers on an ice cream crawl and we want to come to your store. Can you open early?” And then, in addition to asking the Big Gay Ice Cream guys to come up with special flavors and a sample-size portions of the whole menu, this Elite Yelper went in for the kill: “Think of all the great reviews you’ll get.”

***

If  Yelp is not opposed to its Elites receiving special benefits from businesses to elicit reviews, why would it object to Botto Bistro’s campaign? Though Yelp claims it has issues with fake reviews, its actual concern is preserving its control over the tone of reviews, what criteria are held to be significant, and what a one-star and a five-star rating should mean.

Botto Bistro asserts that a one-star review is a gesture of support, a way to thumb your nose at an impersonal system, and a quick path to cheap pizza. Reviewer Richard Y gave Botto a one-star review with the text “Yelp Support removed my previous review. So I am writing this one so I can tell Yelp to stop bullying small businesses.” But even though this has all the appearance of authenticity — it is a true fact about the reviewers opinion — Yelp removed it from the site because the opinion is not based on the criteria it considers relevant.

While Yelp often demotes fake reviews to a status of “not currently recommended,” it has gone further in Botto Bistro’s case and completely removed most of the one-star reviews from the site entirely. As of October 22, Botto Bistro’s overall rating has moved “up” to three stars. But not all fake reviews are deemed threatening. Gregg Gethard has been writing a novel under the guise of Yelp reviews with the name Karl G, and his reviews (all five stars) have been kept on the site despite their obvious lack of authenticity.

So some kinds of inauthenticity are okay but not others. Some reviews are authentic but are still removed; the Botto Bistro reviews are authentically ironic but run counter to Yelp’s mission. What it comes down to is that Yelp’s self-interest, rather than any objective set of criteria, is what determines an acceptable review.

Restaurateurs who complain about Yelp are sometimes dismissed as being disgruntled at embarrassing reviews they can’t bury, but their frustrations go beyond the content of any individual reviews or the behavior of reviewers. Yelp tends to represent itself as a neutral platform, but it does more than passively transmit user content; it actively arranges and presents it. In doing so, it draws on its interpretation of what individual reviews “really” mean.

In a sense, there are two kinds of ratings on Yelp — the individual ratings submitted by reviewers, and the aggregate ratings that Yelp computes and presents in a ranked order, highlighting some restaurants at the expense of others. Yelp’s design choices in its filtering, sorting, and aggregation algorithms can make a big difference to a restaurant’s business.

While the net effects of reputation systems are complex and varied, there is a homogenizing, winner-take-all aspect to Yelp’s aggregate-and-rank design. Taking the average of all scores favors restaurants with broad appeal and militates against more-polarizing venues. It’s the same reason that many challenging or controversial “cult” movies score lower on Rotten Tomatoes than those that are less divisive. Cult movies may attract a more intense following among their core audience, but there is nowhere in the Rotten Tomatoes system, or Yelp’s, for intensity to be reflected.

Like a cult movie, Botto Bistro sets out to be uncompromising. As its owners told Faravar, “We specifically, aggressively inform people that if you’re looking for customer service, this is the last place you should be.” This approach means Botto Bistro will never rank highly on Yelp: Yelp’s reputation model works against the idiosyncratic and difficult.

When Techcrunch’s Faravar asked Vince Sollitto, Yelp’s vice president of corporate communications, about Botto Bistro, Sollitto replied, “I think that you have to wonder if this is the smartest strategy—there’s a Harvard Business School study that was done showing that for every [star] increase, restaurants see an uplift in revenue between five and nine percent.” But the use of a single five-star axis q2of quality is Yelp’s design decision, not a reflection of nature.

There is a world of context behind reviews that may not fit into any algorithmic  assumptions of how it should be interpreted. Human expression is protean; we imbue reviews and ratings with meaning and intent beyond what the system can account for with one variable, and there is no objective fact behind it all that is the “true” rating. Il n’y a pas de hors-click.

Yelp can exploit this ambiguity, aggregating numeric ratings to make its listings seem objective, while using its own subjective judgment expressed in algorithms and through human content moderators to rule out certain reviews and alter those results.

Yelp claims that its algorithms favor reliable reviewers and relegate untrustworthy ones, while many restaurants claim that the most reliable reviews are those hidden by Yelp. The most likely source of these disputes is the different perspective that Yelp and individual restaurateurs bring to the meaning of a “trusted” review. As always, Yelp’s perspective is the only one that counts.

From a restaurateur’s point of view, a reviewer who visits once, does not complain to the staff, and writes up a bad review on Yelp is a “drive-by reviewer” acting in bad faith — the reviewer has only a thin relationship with the restaurant whereas a good reviewer would have a rich relationship. Restaurateurs see the restaurant/customer relationship as reciprocal: a restaurant should have a chance to put things right before a reviewer makes a blanket assessment, and one dish, one evening is insufficient basis for an assessment. From the restaurateur’s point of view, the epitome of a trusted reviewer is a regular customer who decides, even if they rarely visit Yelp, to express their support for their favorite hangout by giving them five-stars on the site.

From Yelp’s point of view the positions are reversed: Yelp values reviewers who visit many restaurants and write up reviews of each, because these reviewers have become legible to Yelp; it does not trust “true fans” of a restaurant because their relationship with Yelp itself is thin and opaque.

So the reviews that a restaurant owner believes are most likely to be fair are precisely the ones that Yelp judges to be untrustworthy. Little surprise that there are frequent disputes, and no surprise that some restaurants have thrown accusations of entitlement at Yelp’s most trusted reviewers, their “Elite Squad.”

Unfortunately for restaurateurs, their opinions on trustworthy reviews are irrelevant. The company is not legally bound to be fair in its filtering and sorting activities, according to a ruling by Judge Marsha S. Berzon of the U.S. Federal Appeals Court this September. She wrote that

even if small business owners could prove that Yelp manipulates their pages to persuade them to pay up for advertising, that doesn’t mean they are being extorted, or that Yelp is violating federal law… the law does not require Yelp to publish positive reviews in the first place … By withholding the benefit of these positive reviews, Yelp is withholding a benefit that Yelp makes possible and maintains. It has no obligation to do so, however.

Yelp gets to do what it wants, how it wants, and restaurateurs just have to suck it up.

***

If you’re a restaurateur, Yelp wants three things from you. First, it wants reviews of your business, which draw people to its site when they are looking for a place to eat. Second, it wants to make money from you by selling you ad space. Third, it wants to profit from the reviews of your business and your ads by striking lucrative partnerships with Microsoft, Yahoo, and other search-engine providers. It’s going to get two of those whether you like it or not.

Why should business owners feel any ethical responsibility to maintain the integrity of a system that they feel is threatening their livelihood, is run like a protection racket, and is unresponsive to their appeals? In this context, Bistro Botto’s treating Yelp as a venue for marketing stunts seems a perfectly reasonable course of action. It’s another question of meaning: Yelp claims that fake reviews are attempts to deceive, but what if we see them mainly as expressions of frustration in a venue with few other options? With the imbalance of power between Yelp and the restaurateurs, fake reviews have their place.

And disputes over ratings and their meaning are going to get only more serious.margin-ad-left

Whole industries are seeking to increase the role of digital reputation in our daily lives. Drivers for Uber and Lyft can be fired if their rating drops below 4.7 out of 5. Airbnb ratings may determine the amount of business a host gets, and the company’s CEO Brian Chesky has ambitions to do a lot more with the “reputation” a user gains on the site as a numerical reputation score on one system (such as Yelp) could be made portable to other environments (TripAdvisor? Credit-card companies? Landlords?). So Chesky told Thomas Friedman: “reputation will give you access to all kinds of things now … Your reputation now is like having a giant key that will allow you to open more and more doors.” A year earlier he told Rachel Botsman that “”I imagine that people will leverage their Airbnb reputation in ways that we can’t yet imagine … Airbnb could become a story of your life and that story should be able to follow you.”

Reputation is a multifaceted and qualitative concept, but digital platforms want to push it through a meat grinder that renders it homogenized, devoid of texture, but easier to digest. Giving such systems too much authority or influence will inevitably throw up bad incentives and gray areas, making reputation scores simultaneously more draconian and less trustworthy. If fake reviews will help to postpone that future, I’ll give them a good rating.

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