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How Yelp’s Consumer Alerts Protected People From Misinformation in 2019

Have you ever seen a Consumer Alert banner over a business’s reviews while browsing around Yelp? These warnings appear when we see brazen attempts to manipulate ratings and reviews. The Consumer Alerts program (part of Yelp’s broader Consumer Protection Initiative) launched in 2012. In 2019, we issued more than 1,300 Consumer Alerts, which run the gamut from identifying attempts to purchase reviews, to informing consumers about businesses that may be getting attention more for their high profile in the media than their customer service.

Consumer trust is a top priority at Yelp, which is why we take significant measures to maintain the integrity and quality of the content on our platform, while leveling the playing field for hard working business owners who rightfully earn their great reputations. While our automated recommendation software is our first line of defense and weeds out a large number of unreliable reviews on Yelp, we also rely on our vigilant community of users to help flag reviews and tip us off to any suspicious behavior they experience. In fact, as part of our Consumer Alerts program, we received more than 1,500 cases from Yelp users last year.

“From those early days, Yelp focused on taking down reviews that it thought were spammy or bogus. Those takedowns became something of an arms race, and the company has sometimes gone to extremes to try to keep things in check. Yelp will publish consumer alerts on businesses pages when it detects inauthentic activity, for example, and even runs sting operations.” — BuzzFeed News

Consumer Alerts by the Numbers in 2019

Yelp placed alerts on 580+ business pages to inform consumers when we saw disproportionate numbers of positive reviews originating from the same IP address. This is by far the most common alert Yelp places — usually for restaurants (11.6% of all IP alerts) and auto businesses (11%) — and it’s typically the sign of attempts to artificially inflate a business’s rating. Contrary to what some may believe, businesses do not receive this alert simply because they have reviews that came from the business’s WiFi. Instead, we look for egregious instances where many positive reviews appear to come from a single IP address in a manner that indicates a concerted effort to improve a business’s reputation on Yelp.

300+ businesses had a Consumer Alert placed on their page after we received evidence or tips that someone was purchasing or incentivizing people for new or updated reviews, or offering compensation to remove critical reviews. These offers are typically made through social media posts, email or text message solicitations, or in-store signage. Most businesses receiving these types of alerts were in the home services (17%) and restaurants (13%) categories.

35+ businesses received an alert after we obtained evidence that someone associated with the business may have tried to abuse the legal system in an effort to stifle free speech. Reviewers have a First Amendment right to express their honest opinions on Yelp and we regularly promote and defend their ability to do so. More than a third (37.7%) of our Questionable Legal Threat alerts were placed on pages of home services businesses. Often, businesses receive this alert because they have included a gag clause in their contracts with consumers — something that’s illegal under the Consumer Review Fairness Act, a federal law Yelp helped pass in 2016.

450+ businesses had an influx of Yelp reviews that were motivated by a recent news event rather than an actual consumer experience. An Unusual Activity Alert is meant to protect businesses, not just consumers, and will remain up until we see that activity has dramatically decreased or stopped. In the meantime, Yelp’s User Operations team removes reviews and photos that violate our Terms of Service or Content Guidelines on an ongoing basis. This includes those that are not based on a firsthand experience or contain hate speech or profanity. We also rely on our community of both consumers and business owners to flag content for review. Here are some of the most notable reasons we issued an Unusual Activity Alert in 2019:

  1. Handling Political Activism: Yelp removed over 2,000 reviews that weren’t based on first-hand experiences in 2019 after numerous businesses made headlines — either deliberately or accidentally — for something related to President Trump and his administration.
    • Even though news of Sarah Huckabee Sanders being confronted at a Lexington, VA restaurant triggered an Unusual Activity Alert in 2018, the alert reappeared on the business’s page last summer after the restaurant owner published a Washington Post op-ed.
    • After President Trump expressed his desire to host the 2020 G7 Summit at his own Florida resort, and later dropped the idea, some people swarmed the business’s Yelp page to make allegations of bed bugs despite having never stayed at the resort.
    • Gordon Sondland’s impeachment testimony late last year brought attention to his hotel properties from both sides of the political spectrum. In all, Yelp placed Unusual Activity Alerts on 21 business pages affiliated with Provenance Hotels.
  2. Revenge of the Fandoms: In total, we removed more than 1,100 reviews after fans took to Yelp to defend their favorite celebrities.
  3. The Rise of the One-star Challenge: Last year YouTubers began challenging one another to film their experiences at the worst-reviewed businesses in their area. This caused Yelp to remove more than 80 reviews that were spurred by this viral challenge.
  4. The Return of #PossumGate: Back in 2017, someone wrote a Yelp review about a possum eating off of someone’s table at an Arby’s, which got the location its first Unusual Activity Alert. The Internet’s fascination with possums led to the business getting another influx of possum-related — yet fake — Yelp reviews in May 2019, which triggered a new Unusual Activity Alert, almost two years later. It may sound im-possum-ble, but Yelp’s team removed about 30 of these suspicious reviews.

Yelp’s New Suspicious Review Activity Alerts

As technology and fake content continues to evolve, so are Yelp’s efforts to thwart these bad actors. In January, we released a new type of Consumer Alert called the Suspicious Review Activity Alert. This new alert warns consumers when we uncover businesses that are potentially participating in a deceptive review ring. As of late February we’ve issued 294 Suspicious Review Activity alerts.

Our new “Suspicious Review Activity” alert will appear on a business page when our team discovers a possible connection to a deceptive review ring. Earlier this year, Yelp closed approximately 550 user accounts associated with one vast review ring we recently uncovered. There’s also been a decline in providers offering fraudulent Yelp reviews, which may be due to the extensive steps we take to ensure content quality, making it more difficult for review sellers to guarantee results and game our system.

“Yelp has one of the most aggressive review-monitoring systems. Consumer alerts pop up on some business’s pages warning customers that the venue may be engaging in review manipulation, based on suspicious activity.” — The Wall Street Journal

At the Heart of the Consumer Alerts Program

One differentiator between Yelp and other review platforms is that we have a firm stance that businesses cannot ask for reviews. We outline this policy in our Content Guidelines and Yelp’s Guide to Success for business owners. Our recommendation software does not recommend reviews it believes may have been solicited by someone affiliated with a business because these reviews often lead to bias. For example, a business is more likely to ask their satisfied customers to write reviews, which can skew their business rating, as well as put other businesses who play by the rules at a disadvantage. Review solicitation, including asking for reviews and offering freebies or discounts in exchange for reviews, ultimately hurts consumers and competing businesses. 

How You Can Help Us Investigate Suspicious Activity

With more than 205 million reviews across millions of business pages, deceptive intent is the exception rather than the rule on our platform. We take attempts at review manipulation very seriously and have measures in place to protect business owners and maintain the integrity of our content to help people find the right local business for them. Our investigators often rely on leads from the community to identify potential bad actors. Most Consumer Alerts are removed from affected Yelp business pages after 90 days if the offending behavior stops. Our team of investigators are constantly on the lookout to protect the integrity of information on Yelp, including through tips from the community. If you ever suspect suspicious activity on Yelp, please report questionable reviews directly on a business page or share evidence with our investigators here.

For business owners interested in understanding more about what differentiates Yelp from other review sites, please refer to Yelp’s Guide to Success.