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Yelp.com is a website/cellphone application that allow users to leave online reviews about their experience from various businesses. These businesses allow consumers to eat, shop, drink relax and play. The best way to narrow down and decide which new experience to try is by browsing through and reading previous customer reviews, both positive and negative reviews. There are two different aspects in which we must consider to understand the functioning of the Yelp application. The first aspect is the role that customers play in this application and the second aspect is the position of Yelp as a company.
As the popularity of consumer review websites continues to climb, so do the complaints about their reliability and fairness. The trustworthiness of the application can only be found after a thorough analysis of Yelp Inc.
Yelp is an application designed for customers to rate businesses, it’s simple to rate businesses in terms of stars where five stars is the max, meaning the business is at its the best condition it could ever be.
However, is it really that simple? In an article called “The Problems with Online Ratings”, written by Sinan Aral and published in 2013, he discusses the problems with online ratings how they are systematically biased and easily manipulated. He described a personal experience of when he dined at a NYC restaurant. He thought the experience was average, the service was okay, the food was okay, he logged on to Yelp with a strong idea of giving the restaurant an average rating of three.
However, after navigating the page, he read another Yelp user’s review that excitingly described the “fresh and amazing, sweet and tart ginger dressing” and amazing pricing. Such descriptive review, was accompanied by a bright five-star rating. After reading such enthusiastic review, Aral couldn’t be help but moved by the other person’s opinion. Aral gave his rating a second thought, and decided to give the restaurant four stars instead of three.
This is a simple, yet crucial example of how social influence is dramatically biasing online ratings — one of the most trusted sources of consumer confidence in e-commerce decisions (Aral). The additional star may seem minimal, but it becomes substantial in the long run. The reputation of a business is like a platform. It’s built on the perceptions of previous customers. Through Yelp, these customers are able to that leave comments and give ratings online. The act of changing our mind after reading someone else’s opinion is like being manipulated and swayed in a position direction as a result of social influence bias.
If everyone’s ratings were manipulated by the persons before them, the small gesture of adding an extra star can develop into something more significant, an online review site that’s full of fictitious, manipulated opinions. In an article called “How Trust Worthy are online reviews”, written by Mark Gollom, he questions the reliability and fairness of review websites. After conducting a number of studies on the impact of consumer review websites, mainly focusing on Yelp, he states that these online reviews are “democratizing the way we think about [a certain experience] and democratizing information”.
In an article written by Susan Seligson, called “Yelp Reviews: Can You Trust Them?” she uncovers the manipulation in the reputation management industry. According to research, an extra star in the Yelp rating system, brings about 5-10% increase in sales (Seligson). From this, we can safely assume that there’s a direct connection between Yelp ratings and a business’s sales. Business’s priority is to increase sales and make money, so how would they utilize Yelp’s rating system as a tool to do so? Businesses that don’t have a good reputation online will try to create one by submitting phony reviews (Seligson). Restaurants sometimes take the low ground by posting fraudulent negative reviews for establishments competing for the same customer base (Seligson). This kind of behavior involving fake reviews and manipulation of customer’s minds have been recognized by Yelp. Since 2005, Yelp has created an automatic filter algorithm that sifts through its more than 42 million reviews, rooting out the 25 percent reviews that were found to be fakes or submitted by the businesses themselves or from rivals containing extreme languages (Seligson).
However, the usage of filter has brought much controversies to the company. Some businesses tried to sue [to Yelp] by stating that the filter removes legitimate positive reviews (Seligson). For example, the owner of a Vancouver electrolysis chain recently accused Yelp of filtering out positive reviews about her company (Gollom). However, the class action suit was thrown out, because freedom-of-expression laws protect sites from being sued for user content and the judge saw no proof of the alleged extortion.
And in some other cases, as described in an article called “In Yelp suit, free speech on Web vs. reputations”, businesses are suing reviewers for “lying” when they post extremely negative comments and damaging reputations (Jouvenal). According to Michael Moyer, in which he explained in an article called “Manipulation of the Crowd: How Trustworthy are Online ratings?” people only post comments after an extreme experience. People tend not to review things they find merely satisfactory, only the loudest voices at the furthest ends of the spectrum gets heard. They evangelize what they love and trash what they hate. Therefore, this lead to a lot of one- and five-star reviews of the same product.
If Yelp is filled with extreme experiences, and Yelp’s filter is designed to eliminate these suspicious extreme comments that may come from rivals, what would be left on Yelp reviews? Would the filter delete everything? How does the filter actually operate? So what are the reviews that we actually sees?
No one knows. Kermit Pattison interviewed Jeremy Stoppelman, the co-founder and CEO of Yelp and a condensed version of their interview was published in the New York Times in an article called “Talking to the Chief of Yelp, the site that businesses Love to Hate”. When Stoppelman was asked how the filter works, he refused to divulge the filter’s way of operations by simply saying it’s automatic. Yelp filter looks at a variety of factors, and collect data on the users that have contributed reviews. In the end, Stoppelman did not give any specific details because “the more he explain about the algorithm, the less effective it becomes.”
Perhaps the Yelp company itself is manipulating the playing field (Moyer).
We tend to neglect the fact that Yelp Inc. itself is a business. And its priority is to also make money. The primary source of income of Yelp Inc. is through business advertising on its website. Yelp Inc. has reportedly made $71 million in revenue in the most recent quarter (Lazrus).
In recent weeks, Yelp has been hit with three class-action lawsuits from businesses claiming that Yelp sales representatives tried to press the businesses into advertising by offering — or threatening — to manipulate reviews. There are also controversies that revolves around the obscure advertisement method of Yelp Inc. In an article written by David Lazarus in 2014, “For $75, Yelp will make man’s Yelp problems go away”, he reveals a flawed, unfair business practice, extortion.
In a scenario described by Lazarus, a man named Rick Fonger originally pay $300 per month for advertisement on Yelp pages, however he realized the advertisement did not produce a significant increase of sales for his business, hence he canceled the advertisement. The very next day, a Yelp representative called Fonger and “offered to help”. She pointed out that competitors ads were now appearing above the reviews of Fonger’s store. For $75 a month, Yelp is able to help Fonger make those advertisements go away. If Yelp sold the ad space to someone else, Fonger would have no opinion nor control over it, however, the action of Yelp calling Fonger and offering to make the ad go away for a price seem like an unscrupulous business practice.
Not only is extortion an issue in the advertising operation of Yelp. There’s also complaints about Yelp purposely highlighting positive reviews more if they paid more advertisement fees. And according to Tomlinson there has been issues where the filter “automatically” delete spam reviews. It has been reported that a furniture company had 30 five star ratings, but filter deleted everything to a two star rating with just three people (Tomlinson) and that happened after the business stopped paying for advertisement fees to Yelp. So when a consumer encounters a business’s page, the reviews they’re seeing aren’t necessarily the truth because it’s every review that’s been written about the business. It’s a selection of those reviews. Yelp was originally designed to ensure that the consumers are able to see useful, trustworthy information that gives them a good idea of what to expect when they patronize that businesses. But these controversies suggest otherwise. It seems as if Yelp is taking advantage of the filter and using it to benefit itself and not the consumers. Again, how does the filter actually operate? These unacceptable activities of extortion and deception has created a corrupted society where trust is questionable. When it is damaged, the community as a whole suffers; and when it is destroyed, societies falter and collapse (Bok 589).
Can we trust Yelp after it has created an online venue that is able to charges both sides of rivalry for the same limited space. Are we being deceived about other things? According to Tomlinson some reviews never get posted because the filters eliminates “drive by reviews” to give more prominence to reviews from “trusted”, frequent users. As a result, some review does not get posted not because the reviews weren’t genuine, but most likely because those customers aren’t regular Yelp users. “If you are a user and you are writing reviews and it’s getting filtered out — keep writing reviews and keep using the site — if you find it helpful — and you might find yourself getting unfiltered.”
So there are different ways to work around the filters. One, be the business owner and pay advertisement fees to Yelp or two, be a regular Yelp user that uses the review site often. Either way, you must contribute something to Yelp. This related to the business side of Yelp, where they ultimately want to gain more customer base for their site, not necessary promoting other businesses.
How can we trust anything anymore? YELP’s communication community is designed in such a way that truth and false hood are indistinguishable. On Lying, an essay written by Sissela Bok, thoroughly described lying as a kind of “assault” on people. She examines the consequences of lies on those lied to and on the liars themselves. Deception- can be used in self-defense, even for sheer survival. [However]…a society would scarcely function without some degree of truthfulness in speech and action (Bok 585). It would simply collapse when members are unable to distinguish truthful messages from deceptive ones. Consumers are no longer able to decipher whether or not a review is genuine anymore because consumer themselves are manipulated by other reviews when they post their rating. In addition, Yelp’s filter eliminate anything it “automatically” detects to be fake. And this ranges from “genuine” extreme comments from customers, to intentionally fake reviews from rivals. And to add even more to that, the filter also eliminate anything “positive” if the business are not paying enough toYelp.
We truly live in a corrupted society. [And] lying is a strategy essential for survival in a corrupt society (Bok 588).
Consequently, lying led to a corrupted society. However, we must continue to lie in order to survive in this corrupted society. Is our lives nothing but lies?
We tend to believe things are truthful when the majority believes in it. But what happens when the “majority” was actually the minority? Just like the previous example of filters deleting spam messages until the deceiving perception is the exact opposite of reality. Again, we cannot even assume reality is reality anymore because everything has already been manipulated. Bok states that most of us would resist loss of control over which choices we want to delegate to others and which ones we want to make ourselves, aided by the best information we can obtain (587).
When something was described to be fascinating and amazing. It has a certain symbolic complex that is formed on our minds. And we have a certain expectation for it. So when we actually see it, we don’t actually see the magnificent of it because we’ve already prepared ourselves to expect great things. This can lead our opinion to alter when leaving reviews, it may only trigger us to write average opinion of that place. In contrast, when a place was described to be really bad, we expect to have terrible service and food. But if it isn’t like that in reality, it might alter our thinking once again and leave a different review. This is leaving reviews with manipulation of the manipulated mind. As Matthew Goulish stated in his essay, Criticism, Whatever we fix our attention on seems to multiply before our eyes. If we look for problems we will find them everywhere (Goulish 559).
Some use deception much more consciously to manipulate and gain ascendancy (Bok 586). In other words, those who are trying to dominate something uses deception even more often.
How did Yelp become so popular? Due to the fact that we’re currently in the mobile era, it’s especially easy to have access to reviews at the last second, so these type of cellphone applications have a huge impact on our lives (Gollom). Online consumer reviews are the second most-trusted source of brand information (after recommendations from friends and family). So for the most part, we have or had faith in these ratings and view them as trustworthy.
Why do consumers continue to read and write reviews? According to Goulish, any act of critical thought finds its value through … to cause a change (Goulish 558) Are we are trying to change something? Perhaps consumers liked the idea of Yelp’s platform allowing them to be leaders in control by being critics of restaurants. As critics, their ultimate goal is to change the restaurant through their power of criticism. However, criticism only consistently change the critic (Goulish 558). If a restaurant has mostly positive reviews and just one negative review, the restaurant is not going to change from that one critic’s criticism. But instead, the critic will most likely find something else from other critic’s reviews and being manipulated to change his or her opinion. However, we must realize critic’s also have the power to achieve critical mass. In that case, if everyone write negative reviews about that restaurant then that restaurant should really consider changing its operation style.
Perhaps they try to change the future by effecting audience perceptions. If they can convince enough people, they believe they will achieve critical mass, causing an elimination of the despised, and an encouragement of the admired (Goulish 558). [But we] all want to avoid being deceived by others as much as possible (Bok 588).
Other than the fact that Yelp offer them the chance of leadership, Yelp also give consumers a chance to be led by others in choosing a restaurant to go in the first place. [Because] society is increasingly relying on the digitized, aggregated opinions of others (Aral MIT Sloan). All our choices often rely on information from others (Bok 586). However, although a critique may influence the thoughts of many audience members, in the end they [are the ones that] make up their own minds (Goulish 558). Our own decision is still dependent on ourselves, not the reviews of others. The degree of uncertainty in how we look at our choices can be manipulated through deception. (Bok 586). Although other people’s opinions may manipulate us, it’s our decision to let it affect us. Depending on whether or not the audiences have similar taste to the critique, or reviewers of yelp, audience can decide for themselves whether or not to fully trust the reviews.
Is it appropriate for false advertisement and paid positive reputation to take place? How can consumers be aware that there are deceiving customer reviews? This behavior has modified our culture, making us live in an artificial world. Was Yelp trying to manipulate our mind again when its business advantage is involved? Now that we know online review sites utilize a filter function for their reviews and all the business involvement behind corporations that manage and manipulate the things that we come in contact with? Should we fully trust review sites? Perhaps we should become less gullible when it comes to relying online reviews to give trustworthy information. Online review sites should not be taken so seriously. The best way to get reliable information is to go beyond online word of mouth, try to use off-line word of mouth if that’s available. We can rebuild our corrupted artificial society slowly, with less lies and less manipulation of our manipulated minds.
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