The Dangers of Fake Yelp Reviews

How many choices do you make every day for which you look to others for advice? Do you read movie reviews before buying a ticket? Do you wait to see what Rolling Stone has to say about the new Coldplay album? Perhaps most importantly, do you trust a restaurant you’ve never visited and never read any endorsements for?

There’s a popular theory that people are much more likely to go out of their way to write a negative review than a positive one. That’s true… unless the reviews haven’t actually been written by customers.

Up to 16% of Online Reviews Might Be Fake

In a story that surprised exactly no one, it was recently found that a great many reviews on popular consumer review site Yelp may be fake: up to 16%, if you can believe the numbers. The validity of review sites like Yelp have always been worth questioning, as there’s never really been a great way of determining whether negative reviews were posted by competitors, or if positive ones were posted by friends and family of the owners or staff. It wasn’t until Attorney General Eric Schneiderman got involved that people started to doubt with a renewed intensity.

A year-long undercover investigation known as “Operation Clean Turf” recently looked into suspect online reviews, culminating in New York State fining 19 businesses for fake reviews. It sought to determine which reviews had been written by staffers and even paid writers, and which ones were written by honest-to-goodness customers. Yelp’s senior litigation counsel expressed that they were eager to aid in the investigation in order to look out for consumers and business owners.

Have We Brought This Upon Ourselves?

Alison Winter of the Huffington Post said in a USA Today Opinionline article that she was as disappointed as anybody that many of the review sites relied upon by savvy consumers were found to be wanting in veracity. However, she suggested that we have been, in a small way, bringing this on ourselves. Instead of looking to faceless people on the Internet to provide us with guidance, she suggests instead that we “crowdsource” to our favorite social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to poll friends and family – that is, people we already know and trust – for suggestions about what hip new restaurant to try out.

If you’re looking for the best Harrisburg restaurants, for example, ask people you know. Until the point where online review aggregators are better able to self-govern and eliminate fake reviews with better efficiency and accuracy, use the built-in and trusted networks that social media has given us instead.

While fake Yelp reviews do pose a problem and create a source of frustration for consumers and business owners alike, it’s worth putting it in perspective. Jim Mitchell, of The Dallas Morning News, questioned the necessity of court intervention in this, a legal endeavor that pales in comparison to, say, taking down organized crime. The best advice, he says, is to remember the old axiom: buyer beware.

At the end of the day, take whatever you read on the Internet with a grain of salt and keep your expectations realistic. After all, there’s no substitute for personal experience; at the end of the day, sometimes you just have to get out there and see something for yourself, no matter what the reviews do or don’t say.

Katie Elizabeth

Katie Elizabeth is a content coordinator and freelance blogger covering many topics including technology, blogging, WebpageFX SEO, career development, music, nonprofits and more. She’s also a communications grad student. When she’s not writing, you can find her at a concert or playing with her new dog.