Yelp has finally cracked down on companies caught offering cash in exchange for positive reviews that can make or break a business. The San Francisco-based company revealed to the New York Times that they've already set up a sting operation to make an example of eight businesses across the country who will now be getting a nice big scarlet letter warning users that the they have "caught someone red-handed trying to buy reviews for this business."
Users who visit the offending business pages on the site will be greeted with the image of a cartoon Yelp detective and an invitation to check out the offending evidence for themselves. (Or just ignore it and read the reviews anyway.) Bert Levi Family Jewelers in San Diego, for example, had an average rating of 5-stars with a couple of one and two-star dings on their record before today. Now they've got a link to photographic proof that the jewelry store was offering $200 for a review from an Elite Yelper about their custom ring design. A pest control company was offering users five bucks a pop to post pre-written reviews and an appliance repair shop was willing to put up $30 for every user who wrote that their repairman was on time.
In the past, Yelp has tried to crack down on this sort of thing by burying suspiciously good or overly negative reviews, especially those from relatively new accounts. According to the New York Times, one out of every five reviews is pushed to the second page of results (which we all know no one reads) by the site's internal filters.
On the other hand, Mirror Mirror, a hair salon in Chicago that was also caught in the sting operation claims to know nothing about a $10 offer for a whimsical Romantic Comedy-esque review about a gal flying to the Windy City and getting her hair did for a special date. Mirror Mirror owner Jessica Hernandez told the paper of record that Yelp had aggressively pestered her to promote the business on the site — a common complaint about Yelp ad sales that has led to accusations of extortion in the past.
While the public shaming will probably make the Craigslist offers for favorable reviews disappear, one expert witness for the Times brings up an excellent point: what's to stop Elite Yelpers from going out to local businesses and selling their reviews in person?