A colleague of mine was recently complaining about the problem of negative reviews on Yelp.  His wife’s florist shop had received an obviously spurious comment on the site, and she had no recourse.  Or does she?  It may depend on how much it’s worth to her.  The East Bay Express has a thought-provoking article on the borderline extortionate business practices of Yelp entitled “Yelp and the Business of Extortion 2.0“. The article probes into some of Yelp’s advertising sales tactics that go beyond paying for good coverage and into “Pay, or else.” The Express interviews several business owners who say that they were offered the chance to pay to have negative reviews suppressed. This is already a violation of the audience’s trust in the presumed neutrality of the reviewers. Moreover, the article claims that not paying to play in this unethical game with Yelp led to the mysterious appearance of bad reviews or the equally mysterious disappearance of good reviews. When one party demands something on the threat, whether implicit or not, of negative consequences for the other party, that’s extortion.

Yelp has always had problems with its model of user-generated reviews. Everyone knows that the content of the site must be taken with a grain of salt. Now, however, we are left wondering how big that grain should be. I was not aware, for instance, that along with the spiteful and disrespectful reviews that come from people whose sensibilities are offended by a lack of ham while they’re intoxicated, there are reviews that are written by paid Yelp staff.  It makes perfect sense that Yelp would have to produce content themselves in their fledgling stages, but doing so now raises tricky issues of trust.  Is this “real reviews” by “real people” or not?  (I am aware that even Yelp staff are real people, ontologically speaking)

So, my question is how can we set up a system so that we will get reliable, honest reviews of community establishments while letting business represent themselves faithfully?  There are a couple of ideas that I can think of.  First, more businesses should have their own websites.  Furthermore, their websites should not just be electronic versions of coupon doorhangers.  The magic of the web is interactivity.   Businesses would do well to embrace the responses of their customers as part of a conversation.  They can set up blogs or discussion fora where they can get feedback directly from customers.  Then, business owners or managers could be open about addressing concerns their customers write about.  “You were disappointed that my religous beliefs prevent me from serving ham?  Well, I too thank God that you live in the Mission then.”

The problem, of course, with this set up is that most business owners will not be as honest as they should be.  Although why they are satisfied letting a third party control the discussion space is beyond me.  They are inherently biased towards the positive representation of their business.  So, perhaps another alternative is raising the barrier to entry for reviewing.  Charge people a $5 lifetime fee for using your service and charge business owners $20 each to be able to participate.  This is anti-egalitarian, I know, but when it comes to reviews (of anything, really) I want the bar to be lifted.  A higher barrier to entry means that casual vandalism is weeded out, reviewers are more committed to their cause and the whole system is more trustworthy.  There would have to be an eye kept on sock puppetry and other attempts to game the system, but with Yelp this could be going on already totally uncontrollably.   A similar setup works for Metafilter, raising the level of discourse found there head and shoulders above most internet communities.  Come to think of it, MeFi should start their own version of Yelp; I trust Mefites much more a priori than I do the standard Yelp user.

Another method might be to have a system of voting that directly influences both how reviews are displayed and the weight that they have in determining the overall rating of a business.  Yelp allows users to vote on whether they find a review “helpful”, “funny”, or “cool.”  (What, no “sexy?”)  It’s unclear how those votes contribute to the weighting of reviews.  The same issues of gaming the system apply, as above.

What do you think the next generation of community review sites will look like?