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Last fall, Yelp and the State of New York began sniffing out paid Yelp reviews. These are reviews that were either posted by agencies that outsourced to India and Eastern Europe or bribe reviews where customers received gift cards or cash in exchange for five stars.
New York regulators fined 19 agencies and companies for trying to boost their ratings through paid reviews, which made the rest of the country wonder: how many reviews are fake in my neighborhood? Yelp has been running sting operations in the US and has caught more than 285 businesses.
When a business is caught, Yelp posts a consumer alert on the page. The public shaming is meant to deter Yelp users from clicking through to the reviews and even discourage consumers from doing business with the company. The whole premise of Yelp is to warn buyers about bad restaurants and stores, and if users can’t trust the reviews then the whole website goes under. By making punishments for paid reviews highly visible, Yelp is squashing the practice before too many businesses start to think it’s a good idea.
Unfortunately, if businesses can’t post positive fake reviews on their own profiles for fear of punishment by the Yelp gods, they might be inclined to go after their competitors instead. What’s worse than fake glowing reviews? Fake defamatory reviews.
According to International Business Times, a Virginia businessman claimed seven negative reviews of his carpet-cleaning company were from users who had never actually purchased his service. Initially the judge said that negative reviews are protected by the first amendment – no matter who disagrees with them; however, if the reviewer was not an actual customer then the post is a false statement and the identity should be revealed. When you look at the big picture, this is fair.
Anonymous reviews are meant to protect the reviewer, which maintains Yelp’s reputation as an unbiased website. The Consumerist regularly shares horror stories of consumers getting fined or sued by companies because they left bad reviews.
As long as the courts are setting precedents for defamation and online reviews, users will need to have the option to post anonymously. This extends beyond Yelp and into the realms of YouTube, Twitter and Instagram. We all saw the outrage that die-hard YouTube users expressed when they needed Google+ accounts to comment on the site, and every few months in the news we hear about a teen who committed suicide because of his or her school’s cyberbullies. The Internet is still a place where people need and want to hide their identities.
The purge of fake Yelp reviews (both positive and negative) helps two main issues facing Internet users today. It keeps trustworthy content at the top and it protects the security of users. These were major issues in 2013 and probably won’t be solved in 2014. We’re going to have to tackle them one site at a time.