Phony online reviews are a cancer on sites like Yelp. Generally unstoppable — despite Yelp's claims that its filter is effective — the deception undermines the legitimacy and credibility of all the reviews. And producing fake reviews is a seriously big business, with large companies entirely devoted to fraud. Yesterday Eater Philly got its hands on an email that was sent to several chefs in Philadelphia. The email came from a "reputation management firm" that specializes in "correcting negative reviews" about restaurants. The "firm" specializes in gaming online review sites like Yelp, Google, CitySearch, and TripAdvisor. For the low price of $495 — "50% off" the regular fee of $995 (math is hard) — the company offers these services:
· At first raising the star ratings: "If your rating is 3 stars or below, we can help you to increase your rating to 4.0 to 4.5 stars."
· Twelve months of monitoring of ratings, with a guarantee to continue gaming the score: "[I]f someone then posts a bad review on Yelp or any other review site, or your ratings drop for any reason, we will work diligently to get your rating back up again."
· A "Video Review of Your Restaurant (published online)"
· And, well, because why not: "1,000 Likes” to your Facebook page"
How do they do it? The email briefly explains their approach: "We provide incentives to try new restaurants and write good things about them in exchange for gifts and incentives." Instead of using bots, the company is paying real people to write fake reviews.
It's a little different than other more "industrial" approaches. For example, a company based out of Madagascar, hires out one of its full-time 75 employees for 550 euros a month. That single person is capable of dropping 25,000 fake reviews in three months.
A Yelp spokesperson tells Eater "we do not endorse or partner with these companies (and just goes to show why we have a review filter)." They also passed along a PSA they sent out to their business newsletter mailing list, which reads as follows:
We’ve recently heard about “reputation management” companies that claim to work with Yelp to remove your negative reviews or otherwise boost your ratings? for a fee (of course!). If you’re wondering how these companies can make good on this offer, the answer is simple: They can’t.
When a review is completely removed from Yelp, there are two possible scenarios:
1) The person who posted the review has removed it.
2) The review was removed for violating our Terms of Service.
To be clear, Yelp does not endorse or partner with these companies. With that in mind, we want to raise awareness about this issue, so you can avoid spending money on a service that is impossible to deliver on. As we’ve previously mentioned, the best strategy for reputation management is to provide great customer service, and respond diplomatically to your reviewers.
If you’ve been contacted by someone offering something along these lines, we’d love to get the details so we can prevent them from preying on others. Please use this form to loop us in. For general questions, contact our user support team at www.yelp.com/contact.
Developing software to detect fake online reviews is a difficult task, but catching fake reviews is just a big game of whack-a-mole. Using real people to write fake reviews is almost undetectable, and it puts to question the trustworthiness of anything on sites like Yelp. Yelp might be full of militant vegetarians and degenerate, frenzied Elites, but it's also very likely full of fake, garbage reviews.