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Ever since it launched in 2004, Yelp has attempted to position itself as a fair, balanced customer review site. The company’s slogan says it all: “Real reviews, real people.” The expectation is that the Yelp ratings algorithm will help to weed out fraudulent reviews (i.e. owners reviewing their own businesses), spam and mean-spirited reviews from people with some hidden agenda of their own (e.g. the rivals next door). But is that really the case?
Yelp and the pay-to-play phenomenon
The dirty little secret of Yelp is that it is very much a pay-to-play platform. It’s not only the fact that sponsored posts and reviews show up at the top of the page, it’s also that people who have paid for advertising with Yelp will see their business reviews improve almost as soon as the check cashes. In other words, Yelp knows who’s advertising on the site, and can tweak its review algorithm to assign a slightly higher weight to positive reviews and a slightly lower weight to negative reviews. In some cases, Yelp might remove harshly critical reviews entirely.
And it’s all completely legal. Courts have already ruled that Yelp is perfectly within its legal rights to adjust ratings and reviews based on ad buys. The courts didn’t view this as some kind of extortion (as some business reviewers have charged). In other words, Yelp is not acting like some kind of mafia boss demanding some kind of “protection money” to keep reviews at a high level.
The pay-to-play mentality of social media
Instead, Yelp is just doing what every other social media company is doing these days – they’re embracing a “pay-to-play” mentality. Take Facebook, for example. These days, you can’t expect to create content and have that content shown to other users across Facebook – or even to your own followers. Instead, you need to pay to promote that content so that people on Facebook actually see it. So is Facebook also extorting money from brands? No, of course not, that’s ridiculous.
The big question, of course, is whether or not the pay-to-play phenomenon is healthy for social media. In the case of Yelp, it hasn’t seemed to hurt too much. Business owners might make a big fuss from time to time, but Yelp is still an extraordinarily popular platform to get a sense of how good a restaurant or retail shop really is. People are smart enough to spot bogus reviews or to realize when things just don’t add up.
Social media – by its very nature – is never going to be unbiased
And here’s the thing – even if Yelp employed a completely neutral rankings algorithm that wasn’t biased towards advertisers, so what? The site would still be subject to user manipulation. Bias is impossible to remove from social media for one simple reason: social media is “social.” And all social interactions are bound to be biased for one reason or another.
Moreover, since you don’t actually have to be a customer of a business to write a review on Yelp, that means that hordes of strangers on the Internet could theoretically attempt to determine the reputation of any business for just about any reason. There’s not much Yelp could do about that.
So what’s the lesson in this for small business owners? The most obvious lesson is that it’s time to wake up and realize that social media has entered a new pay-to-play era. If you want to be at the top of the charts, or if you want to go viral, then it’s not as easy as it once was. Social media is no longer “free” because the big social media companies – and that includes Yelp – have realized that they need to be responsive to the needs of their advertisers (and not just to their users) if they hope to thrive.