Yelp to battle shill reviews with name-and-shame program

Yelp is enlisting the age-old tactic of public shaming in its battle against unscrupulous businesses trying to game the user-generated review site by paying for so-called shill reviews. The company says it will start placing alert messages on the Yelp profile page of businesses caught stuffing their profile full of bogus reviews. The message will tell Yelp users the business, or somebody on behalf of the business, has been up to no good. The alert will also include a link to screenshots of the evidence showing the shifty behavior. So if your local coffee shop, laundromat, or vet pays for reviews, you'll know about it thanks to Yelp's new digital scarlet letter.

“We caught someone red-handed trying to buy reviews for this business,” an example notice posted to Yelp's blog reads. “We weren't fooled, but wanted you to know...check out the evidence here.” In addition to screenshots, Yelp also plans to show on its evidence page data such as whether a number of bogus reviews were posted from the same IP address, indicating the reviews were from the same person or someone in the same office/home. Since 2006, Yelp has also used an automated system to filter out shill reviews.

Shaming begins with nine

Yelp said the name-and-shame program will begin with nine unnamed businesses having consumer alerts placed on their pages. Other businesses may be included as more naughty deeds are uncovered. Yelp shame alerts will remain on a merchant's Yelp page for 90 days. If a business, or someone else, continues to try to buy reviews during its public shaming period, the alert could be renewed for another 90 days.

Yelp is considered a vital business tool for many local merchants, and it's not hard to see why. The site has a large monthly user base of about 78 million users worldwide who turn to Yelp for reviews of local businesses. Yelp information is also integrated with third-party services such as Siri, Apple's personal digital assistant built into select models of the iPhone and iPad.

Yelp suit

Consumers’ reviews on Yelp are such an important asset for some businesses that they have even turned to the courts to protect themselves from bad Yelp reviews. In 2009, a San Francisco doctor sued a patient for posting a negative review of his practice. Then, in early 2010, Yelp was hit with a class action lawsuit accusing the review site of running an extortion scheme where the site would demand payment for hiding or removing negative reviews from a business page. The lawsuit was later dismissed.

It will be interesting to see how businesses that get slapped with a review fraud alert react to the charges, and whether Yelp's new policy prompts another round of lawsuits against the site. Nevertheless, this could be an important tool to help protect users against fake reviews that make a local restaurant or other service business sound better or more popular than it really is.

Complaints from users about shill reviews, or suspected shill reviews, aren't limited to Yelp. You can also find concerns about shills on sites such as Urbanspoon and Citysearch, both of which try to offset user reviews by integrating reviews from critics, bloggers and local experts.

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