Let me begin this by saying that Yelp has been extremely useful in my transition to the west coast over the past 3.5 years.  When I first moved out here, I knew nothing, and although I had friends and family, they were relatively new to the area as well.  So Yelp was extremely helpful in finding things like restaurants, mechanics, Red Sox bars, whatever it may be.  I use it more than Google when looking up local places, I mean, who doesn’t want to read reviews about where they are going?  My friends would often call me weird, because I’d always know what to order even though I may never have visited a place (the mobile edition is great for this).  Yes it could be better (especially the mobile version, how can they have an iPhone app but not a Blackberry app), but for the most part it was extremely useful.

Which is why all the press last week has me concerned.  The East Bay Register published an article that alleges some serious stuff (also see Yelp’s response).  I seriously question the motivations some of the interviewees in the article have, and whether they might just be upset that their Yelp reviews may not be what they desire.  Case in point – listen to any politician who’s behind in the polls try to explain why, you’ll see similar lines of argument.  

However, I think there’s a good lesson to be learned here – and one Yelp I hope addresses ASAP.  While they have been showing effort with their blogging and such, they need to take it a step further, perhaps even more than a typical newspapers.  Newspapers generally have strong lines of separation between the editorial and the sales side of the house- as to avoid any semblance of bias.  Yelp really should do the same – put the teams in different offices, limit their interaction, and anyone on the sales team should not be allowed to review on the site (like it or not, their day job will influence how they perceive the businesses they review).  

And I think they should go one step further – air out their agreements for all to see.  This doesn’t seem too controversial to me.  Most businesses complain about deleted reviews, and Yelp maintains they have some algorithm on how to flag spam / fake reviews – well why not publish them on another part of the site?  Why permanently delete them?  Why not give specific reasons for deletion (perhaps even institute a Wikipedia-like moderation system)?  And regarding the “advanced” algorithm, why not just publish it for all to see?  Sure your competitors will see it too, but that’s not stopping them from beating you (it’s the traffic).  The problem is most consumers will have no idea about any of this – it’s really the small, local businesses that receive the worst, and could fail by any potential manipulation (on the part of Yelp or one of their business competitors).  And with consumer spending already way down, I can’t imagine being a small business trying to use Yelp to drive traffic and find out that my page is being manipulated.  

Anyways, here’s hoping Yelp responds with some good features and will continue to grow and improve – I’d hate to have to buy a Zagat guide again.

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