One 2015 marketing study found that almost 70 percent of Americans look for opinions online before making a purchase, or choosing a business to patronize. 59 percent said they generally trust those recommendations. Americans are increasingly reliant on sites and apps, such as Yelp and TripAdvisor, to make purchasing decisions large and small. By and large, these reviews are assumed to be reliable. That assumption is at the very core of the business model of these services. But in recent years, it has become clear that this is not always the case. And while these companies have made some efforts to stamp out fake and misleading reviews, their control over their own platform is limited, as with Facebook’s effort to stamp out fake news and propaganda.
Consumers would do well to understand the limits of these services, and how to avoid falling for manipulated reviews. Companies like Yelp and TripAdvisor need to do as much as possible to maintain the integrity of their services, to keep the trust that is essential to their success and popularity.
Manipulation of these platforms can appear in a variety of forms. In some cases, reviews are entirely fake, planted by businesses who offer positive reviews in exchange for payment, on platforms such as Craigslist.
“I’ve seen businesses generate hundreds of fake reviews,” according to Ian MacBean, from Yelp, in a CBS News report. He said these fake reviewers can include multiple listings, spanning entire industries. On the jobs and services website Fiverr, one company offered two positive reviews for just five dollars.
In 2012, Yelp started to flag businesses associated with suspicious activity regarding their reviews. MacBean and his team even create fake businesses to catch companies offering fake reviews.
Also in 2012, Yelp uncovered what it called a “review-swapping ring” in which businesses agreed to post glowing reviews for one another.
Since they began investigating suspicious activity, Yelp also found a home renovation company offering 50-dollar gift certificates in exchange for customers willing to remove existing negative reviews. One moving company offered 20 dollars for positive reviews, and a weight-loss clinic offered discounts for five-star reviews. While these practices might not be as egregious as paying for fake reviews from non-customers, it provides an incentive to be less than honest in reviews.
At one New York inn, clients hosting events were asked to agree to a 500-dollar fine (for each review) if any of their guests left negative reviews. That plan backfired when news of the practice went viral, with a wave of negative reviews posted soon after. Even worse, many businesses have actually sued customers who post negative internet reviews. Even though reviewers have ultimately won most of these cases, the practice sends a message that could broadly discourage negative reviews.
Conversely, reports have even surfaced of customers “blackmailing” business owners, by specifically threatening to post a bad review.
Yelp discourages businesses from asking for reviews, knowing they wouldn’t bother to ask unsatisfied customers. In one example of this phenomenon, the Stetson Mansion, once owned by the man credited with inventing the cowboy hat, rose to become the most popular tourist attraction in all of Florida, apparently outstripping such nearby favorites as Disneyworld and Universal Studios. When guests of the Stetson Mansion enjoy their stay, they are actively encouraged to write about their experience on TripAdvisor. While this is an understandable practice from a business owner’s perspective, it can throw off the balance of reviews.
More recently, Vice writer Oobah Butler succeeded in a stunt that should serve as a warning to those who put too much stock in these review services. Setting up a fake account for a restaurant he called “The Shed at Dulwich,” Butler managed to propel a nonexistent restaurant to the coveted spot of the top-rated restaurant in London on TripAdvisor, where it stayed for two weeks. Butler faked photos of gourmet food, had friends write positive reviews, and eventually began responding to emails and phone calls, that were now pouring in, by saying The Shed was “fully booked for the next six weeks.” Apparently, this only ramped up interest in the apparently exclusive restaurant. He even began receiving job applications and free samples from food suppliers.
Platforms like Yelp and TripAdvisor can serve as a useful guide, but it’s important to not put too much blind faith in them, particularly in the average ratings for each restaurant. These companies need to do as much as possible to combat manipulation, but ultimately, they have a limited ability to police each review.
To determine if a review is trustworthy, look into how many reviews a user has written. It could be a red flag if they have only posted one positive review of just a single business, according to Yelp. For the moment, the best way to use these services may be to look for more detailed information in the more extensive reviews, rather than to simply trust the average at the top of the page. Read reviews for specific information – if you are looking for a restaurant that excels at a specific dish, see what reviewers have to say about it. If you want a restaurant with a great ambiance, see what Yelp users have to say. But don’t abandon word of mouth recommendations in favor of online reviews just yet.