Yelp and social activism

Marriage equality rally

Today I learned that a bride-to-be was discriminated against in a New Jersey bridal shop on the basis of her sexual orientation. As a result, the shop's Yelp profile is taking quite a beating, with hundreds of angry one-star reviews, countered by some five-star reviews and Bible quotes. It is clear that the majority of those commenting are not actual customers of the shop, so Yelp is filtering many of these reviews out. And herein lies the dilemma.

As any cursory review of my web site will reveal, I am a strong supporter of marriage equality. I have attended and photographed numerous rallies protesting Proposition 8 in California, the law which prohibits same-sex couples here from marrying the partner of their choice, as our above bride-to-be plans to do legally in New York. So I am unquestionably on the side of all who decry the bigoted, narrow-minded, and possibly illegal actions of a shopkeeper who would turn away a potential customer based solely on the fact that she is a lesbian.

However, I do feel that Yelp is far more useful when the business reviews are left by actual customers. It is impossible for Yelp to determine this for sure, of course, and my own business page has had more than one legitimate customer review filtered out for no reason I can tell, which is very frustrating. But in this case, it is quite clear that the majority of the reviewers are reacting to what they have heard second- or third-hand, and not to their actual experience in visiting this business.

I remember a similar (but much smaller) ratings storm happening about a year ago, when it was revealed that a Georgia-based photographer was using stolen images from other photographers on her business web site. She was deservedly trashed on the Groupon page where she was offering a special, and in numerous discussion forums, in addition to Yelp, but most of those commenting on her Yelp profile were reacting to these reports and not to their experience with the service. And of course there are many other examples, of lesser and greater significance.

The problem with - and probable intention of - leaving one- and five-star reviews just to make a point is that many people won't look beyond the star rating when considering a service or product. In both of the above cases, perhaps the judgment is justified. But it still makes Yelp a less useful service overall. Amazon does not appear to filter or screen its reviews to this extent, and I often have to read the comments carefully (a good idea in any case) to see if the one- and five-star reviews are really legit. xkcd has a funny illustration of this point:

I feel those disgruntled with a service provider but not actually customers of said provider should absolutely speak their opinions, but perhaps blogging or leaving comments on news articles about the incident would be a more appropriate place.

7 August 21, 2011
  • Mike Kƺ (not verified) on Sun, 2011-08-21 19:24

    Boy, the Yelp thing. I really wonder how that sort of thing is going to shake out as our online sociology evolves. Yelp is a great idea but the execution is rife with problems, and not just for the people who choose to participate.

    My chiropractor got stuck on Yelp by somebody, and some former client who had chosen not to follow her advice and subsequently didn't recover as promised and moved on to another chiropractor slammed her pretty hard on there and gave her a 1-star review. This was a few years ago, it may be that they now allow business owners to respond, I'm not sure. But back then they didn't.

    I was very happy with her, so I got on and wrote a truthful review. My review got filtered. I went a few months later and updated my review, still positive, and it appeared and disappeared several times. The negative review stayed up. I even left a few other reviews for businesses I frequented, in case their spambot thought I wasn't a real person.

    Then she began getting calls from their ad department. I didn't speak to them myself but she related the conversation and the hinted pretty strongly that if she bought an ad on the site the negative review would cease to be a problem. She felt, and I agree, that they were extorting her—all over a service that she never asked to participate in to begin with.

    If I were a business owner, I'd be pretty displeased with my rating being affected by anyone in the world who for some reason wanted to, in any way that they wanted to, with no recourse of my own to counter malicious manipulation. But at the same time, if I cared about a civil rights issue strongly enough and knew of a business that was violating that right, I'd sure as hell use every available venue to make my opinion known everywhere that that business's clients were likely to look, and I wouldn't hesitate to include Yelp in that. There's no social contract that says that because a service like Yelp exists, it's my duty to use it as they intend.

    I think the burden lies with Yelp to police their site fairly. They make money selling adspace on it, so it's their responsibility to the users whose businesses can be so easily damaged, both by posting of unfair reviews, and filtering out of fair reviews. And they don't police it fairly.

    I think Yelp is eventually likely to fail if they don't solve that conundrum. It's one of those cases where the market will make the decision, and they're not acting in the market's best interests, they're acting in their own. If they don't find a better way, then one way or the other, it will eventually become too unreliable a guide and people will stop using it.

  • funcrunch on Sun, 2011-08-21 20:06

    Business owners are indeed now permitted to respond, a limited number of times each day. I had heard about the extortion for advertising as well, but thought that (mostly?) went away after it was publicized several years ago. Of course the system still has many faults, but I figured I should claim my namespace on there just like everywhere else (Google Places, etc.) so that I could have some control over the portrayal of my business profile, if not the customer comments on it.

  • Mike Kƺ (not verified) on Sun, 2011-08-21 19:29

    A final comment, I'm reminded a little bit by the online activists of the revolutionary war soldiers who managed to defeat larger and better-equipped British troops by ducking in and out of trees, etc., instead of advancing in straight phalanxes to be picked off, which was what the British considered the "civilized way" to fight a battle. They believed the colonists really "shouldn't" have fought that way, it was uncivilized and unfair. Which side do you agree with?

  • funcrunch on Sun, 2011-08-21 20:08

    As an ardent pacifist, I think any kinds of rules when it comes to killing other human beings en masse are kind of pointless, but that digresses quite a bit from this topic :-)

  • Ziggy Tomcich (not verified) on Sun, 2011-08-21 20:24

    People who post reviews of businesses they've never actually been to should be banished to a fake yelp site. This fake site would look and behave exactly like the real site. Users who were banished to this fake site would never know they're banished, except that their reviews would only be visible to other banished people. People who write reviews claiming they've been to a business that they haven't are liars. Nothing they write should be visible to the rest of us.

  • funcrunch on Sun, 2011-08-21 20:30

    The real difficulty in this case is that the one-star reviewers weren't even claiming that they'd been to the business; they were engaging in online civil (or not-so-civil) disobedience as Mike above described. People posting fake reviews that claim they've been to the business but haven't (often five-star reviews trying to offset the one-star ones) are another problem, though often harder to spot. That's when legit reviews for businesses like mine get unfairly filtered, which sucks.

  • funcrunch on Sun, 2011-08-21 20:34

    Just noticed that Yelpers are also adding photos to the wedding vendor's page, letting her know what they think. Again, I applaud their views, but I wouldn't be surprised if some accounts get suspended over this.