Tuesday 22 September 2015

What we think the anti-Yelp brigade is missing

Ever since Yelp became ubiquitous, the business community (and most observers -  journalists and investors) have been mystified by Yelp's review algorithm. 

If Yelp is important for your business (it is, after all, the largest general review site in the English speaking world) you might want to spend 20 minutes watching these videos:

Yelpers are none too keen on the Washington Post either!

Doubt the power of reviews? Listen to the first 20 seconds of this video.

 So what do they accuse Yelp of?
  • 'Extortion' - they allege they have been told (by Yelp sales) 'advertise with Yelp and your great reviews will show up' and even 'your bad reviews will be filtered'
  • 'Manipulation' - the implication that the Yelp 'algorithm' manipulates reviews to in some way promote negatives and 'filter' positives, unless the business pays
And we're not talking small beer here; Yelp's entry-level fee is said to be $300/£200 a month. So what do we think is the answer?

Yelp Elite

Yelp Who? Yelp What? Yelp Elite are Yelp's hard-core reviewers (as you can see from that Yelp page, Yelp itself describes its Elite with this strapline:  'You've heard legends about their reviews, their shiny profile badges, and—of course—their epic parties').

We think there is absolutely no basis in fact for either allegation (apart from the occasional rogue sales person - Yelp employ thousands, so there's always going to be the odd rotten apple). If Yelp sales were routinely offering to promote great reviews for cash then we'd have seen an expose on YouTube by now. We think it's far simpler. We think Yelp don't filter reviews from their Elite Yelpers and we know they do filter reviews from people who very seldom write reviews.

Yelp's logic (and business model) is possibly at fault here. We don't subscribe to their contention that a frequent reviewer is necessarily a great reviewer. Nor do we think a popular reviewer is a great reviewer either: funny/cool = right doesn't always wash in our opinion. We process hundreds of - mostly great (well written, helpful and honest) - reviews every day, and we reckon most are the only review that particular reviewer has ever written. We also think that populating a site with reviews written by people who are predominantly in their late teens and twenties (who may or may not be motivated by having their social life enhanced) is not necessarily a better policy than listing every review regardless of origin (providing it's authentic, of course).

Unforeseen Consequences

The consequence - to our mind unforeseen - of this policy adds up to exactly the same net result on Yelp that the 'extortion/manipulation' algorithm paranoia would indicate:
  • Venues that make themselves popular with the Yelp Elite will get more reviews written
  • None of those - mostly great (don't bite the hand...) - reviews will get filtered
  • Low-traffic businesses that get few (or no) reviews from Yelp Elites and few reviews from 'normal' consumers - who don't write rafts of reviews - will suffer
This also explains why Yelp's review base is so bar/fast food heavy - do we really want another review of our local McDonald's (in fact - you might reasonably ask why we need any reviews of businesses that we are all familiar with)?

Can't wait to read the 143rd review? Need to see photos of a Big Mac (there are 17)? Then Yelp's the site for you. We are also mildly puzzled that most reviewers were disappointed - hence the 2* overall rating - were they surprised by McDonald's? Mind you, the one on Nob Hill rates 4* - as you might expect from such an upmarket location - and has 120 photos (half-eaten burger shots seem to be popular - nice!).

Instead we might find a single well-written review by a client of a financial adviser, solicitor, estate agent or accountant very helpful indeed. But they are few and far between...

No reviews - except two that have been filtered (both singletons). Perhaps Grossmann Investments had better start being nice to the Yelp Elite!

The fundamental issue

People don't write reviews! You're probably slightly amazed seeing those words here, but it's true. Yelp learned this very quickly back-in-the-day, and it's the reason they set up the Elite system: people will write reviews if you organise cut-price drinkathons.

The only other reason people will write reviews is if they are asked to by the business: HelpHound's Dialogue has proved that beyond doubt. Anyway, Yelp is on the wane, but until Google buys them or they find another way out of their current strife, we will continue to keep an eye on them.

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