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How Yelp Manages Social Activism Review Storms Online

Update as of October 2018: We have always been advocates of personal expression and encourage people to share their experiences online. To maintain the quality and trustworthiness of content on Yelp, we work to ensure that all reviews on Yelp are based on first-hand consumer experiences. Since first publishing this blog post, we have improved our tools to prevent the creation of content when the majority of contributions appear to be inauthentic or based on a non-personal experience. Therefore, the Active Cleanup Alert has now been renamed to the Unusual Activity Alert.

This change will preserve the integrity of content shared on Yelp, particularly when the business has recently made headlines for some reason. During these times, users will see a Media-Fueled Consumer Alert, providing information about the situation and directing them to post any and all thoughts about the latest media controversy on our open discussion forum, Yelp Talk.

Local businesses sometimes make national news for controversial reasons, like the recent case of First American Fried Chicken and their connection to the alleged Chelsea bomber; River Bluff Dental and the killing of Cecil the lion; and Dublin business White Moose Café’s public response to customers’ dietary restrictions. Often, the ensuing media storm will drive passionate people to share their views on Yelp.

Take, for example, the pizza parlor owner who hugged President Obama when the President visited his restaurant in 2012.

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This ignited an unprecedented social response from voters on both sides of the aisle either posting one-star reviews attacking the owner’s actions or five-star reviews in his defense. The result was a mishmash of thousands of political viewpoints that buried the actual consumer experiences, including, presumably anyone who might have actually been there and had a good slice of pizza.

Why not just delete the business listing or turn off the ability for people to write Yelp reviews? We think it’s important for consumers to still be able to share their firsthand experiences visiting these businesses.

So, what’s the right thing to do if you’re in Yelp’s shoes? On one hand, we appreciate the idea that these viewpoints can be relevant for consumers and that many users post their content so that would-be customers have more information about the business. Many people understandably wouldn’t want to patronize a dentist who kills lions as a hobby, and others might legitimately be inclined to choose one pizza parlor over another based on their political views.

But we ultimately think the better proposition is for Yelp reviews to be driven by firsthand customer experiences. As a result, we have a two-pronged process for managing these situations that involves our team of user support specialists and sophisticated technology working together.

On the technology side, Yelp’s automated recommendation software highlights the most useful and reliable content and weeds out reviews that may be fake, biased, an unhelpful rant or rave, or are submitted by users we don’t know much about. Reviews that are not currently recommended can be viewed on a separate page and do not factor into a business’ overall star-rating.

Separately, our Active Cleanup Alert, a new feature enabled last year to reinforce our policies, is activated by our user support team when we see the first signs of media-fueled activity on a business page. It remains up until we see that activity dramatically decrease or stop. The Active Cleanup Alert directs Yelp users to post any and all thoughts about the latest media controversy on our open discussion forum, Yelp Talk, and lets would-be reviewers know about our policy to remove reviews that people post in response to these news stories, regardless of our own moral and political viewpoints.

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In the meantime, Yelp’s User Support team begins the ongoing process of removing reviews and photos that violate our Yelp’s Terms of Service or Content Guidelines, including those that are not based on a first-hand experience or contain hate speech or profanity. We also rely on our community of active and engaged users (both consumers and business owners) to flag content for review.

Although we see stories of this magnitude infrequently, there are cases of social activism on Yelp of varying size on a regular basis, and it makes sense because millions of people already turn to Yelp for information about what’s great — and not so great — about the businesses in their neighborhoods. That’s why we take great responsibility in preserving the integrity of Yelp in these media moments.

Our goal is to be transparent with the actions we take to protect the quality of content on our site and to preserve consumers’ freedom of speech. These media storms are complicated situations that create a dilemma for Yelp, but we’ve chosen to take a strong and consistent stance on managing them and the content they create.

Find more information on Yelp’s policies around reviews for social activism in our Support Center.