At Yelp, we recognize the harm fake and deceptive reviews can cause consumers, which is why we strictly prohibit offering or receiving payment in any form for reviews and take robust measures to thwart the offering of compensation in exchange for Yelp reviews. Last week, the U.K. announced regulations granting new powers to its Competition and Markets Authority and making it clearer that it is illegal to pay someone to write or host fake reviews in the U.K. We applaud this action and hope it inspires other jurisdictions to take a similar stance against compensated review activity, as well as inspire industry-wide change. In the U.S., fake reviews are a form of false or deceptive advertising and can be prosecuted as such.
Protecting consumers from misleading reviews is not just up to regulators — we need more online platforms to step up and prioritize investment in curbing fraudulent review commerce taking place in their ecosystems, such as in review purchase or exchange groups or by directly contacting reviewers on social media platforms. The fraudulent reviews that result from these forums attempt to deceptively inflate online business ratings and review counts, creating false signals of quality and popularity. Not only do compensated reviews mislead consumers and create a disadvantage for other businesses, they’re illegal and need to be mitigated across all online platforms.
At Yelp, we take this unethical behavior seriously and regularly take action against these deceptive review tactics by educating consumers and businesses, closing offending user accounts and removing their reviews, placing alerts to warn consumers of businesses with suspicious reviews, and more. However, our ongoing investigations have shown that compensated review activity is primarily being organized off of the Yelp platform and on social media or classifieds sites. That’s why we need the partnership of other, larger platforms to work with us to better protect consumers from being misled.
How Yelp mitigates misleading, fraudulent compensated reviews
Yelp takes a multi-pronged approach to thwarting compensated reviews, which includes our automated recommendation software, Consumer Alerts program and coordinated investigations into both content on Yelp and other online platforms. When warranted, we will even pass information about businesses engaged in deceptive review schemes to consumer protection agencies at the state and federal level or even file lawsuits ourselves to crack down on shady attempts to foster misleading reviews on our platform.
When we uncover users engaging in compensated review activity we will remove their reviews, close their account and take steps to block such users from creating Yelp accounts in the future.
Yelp’s automated recommendation software curbs fraudulent reviews at scale
Our automated recommendation software is Yelp’s first line of defense when it comes to mitigating misinformation. Among many signals, it’s engineered to identify reviews originating from online review exchange groups, which attempt to flood sites with deceptive online reviews. Review exchange groups exist on various online platforms and facilitate the buying, selling, or exchange of fake reviews. While this behavior is rare overall, if left unchecked it can make review sites less helpful for everyone.
Yelp’s Consumer Alert program warns users of offending businesses
In 2012, we introduced our Consumer Alerts program to warn consumers when we find evidence of extreme attempts to manipulate a business’s ratings and reviews. Yelp’s Compensated Activity Alert is placed on a business page when we receive evidence that someone has offered cash, discounts, gift certificates or other incentives in exchange for someone to write, change, prevent or remove a review. Our Suspicious Review Activity Alert warns users when we detect reviews from users who may be connected to a group that coordinates incentivised fake reviews (also known as review rings).
After conducting a thorough investigation, we will place one of these alerts over the reviews of a business page to inform consumers about the attempts to mislead them. We will also include a link to view the evidence we collected when available.
Conducting investigations to uncover and combat illegal and deceptive review practices across online forums
To keep compensated reviews off of Yelp means we also need to monitor and investigate shady review behavior across the web, other platforms and even the dark web. Yelp’s investigators regularly monitor and infiltrate online groups where people may attempt to trade or pay for reviews. We also reach out to other platforms when we detect suspicious behavior originating from their communities and have had success working with some sites to report these instances, and have seen them improve their ability to mitigate this behavior on their platforms. In 2021, we made more than 1,000 reports to other online platforms to warn them of content from nearly 950 suspicious groups, posts or individuals we found on their sites.
Yelp’s efforts in this space have not been in vain. In 2019, we worked with an independent researcher to evaluate how the fraudulent review industry in the U.S. values Yelp reviews online and on dark web marketplaces. Most notably, few review sellers were willing to offer paid Yelp reviews, likely due to it being more difficult to guarantee results on Yelp compared to other review platforms. The research found that many veteran review vendors preferred to publish paid reviews on other platforms and/or insisted that clients seeking Yelp reviews pay significantly more for them than reviews on other platforms, claiming that Yelp’s infrastructure has made it difficult to have Yelp recommend their deceptive reviews.
Reigning in reputation management companies
Yelp also proactively investigates deceptive reputation management companies that market five star reviews to local businesses. When warranted, we take action against vendors making sketchy claims about Yelp, including sending them cease and desist letters, occasionally going to court to put them out of business and reporting them to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and other consumer protection authorities. For years, Yelp has provided information to the FTC, and state and local government agencies about the prevalence of these bad actors, often providing them with leads on those that engage in review gating and other misleading conduct. In January, the FTC issued warning letters to 10 review management platforms — all of which we were already familiar with and had passed on to the FTC for their further investigation (we also previously contacted several of them demanding that they cease any Yelp-related activities).
On the other hand, we’ve seen other platforms profit from these efforts. A Google search for “get more 5 star reviews” will surface several Google Ads for companies using questionable tactics (and in some cases, Google’s own API) to increase reviews and inflate ratings on Google Maps (including companies that recently received warning letters from the FTC concerning their review practices). However, you won’t typically see these companies reference Yelp because we routinely reach out to inform them and their clients about our rules against these tactics, demand they stop any activities relating to Yelp, and optimize our systems to mitigate their impact.
Yelp has repeatedly served as a resource for social media platforms, government agencies focusing on consumer protection issues, and the media, in efforts to combat deceptive review practices that could harm consumers. We invite other companies to work together with us to thwart illegal compensated review activity taking place on their platforms in exchange groups, forums, direct messages and more. For more information on how Yelp mitigates misinformation on our platform, visit trust.yelp.com.