When you’re trying to decide where to eat, where’s the first place you look for food inspiration? For 70% of Americans, the answer is Yelp. With the purpose of connecting people with great local businesses, Yelp aims to serve as a resource to potential customers for businesses ranging from restaurants to dentists to beauty salons to tourist attractions. While it can be extremely helpful in narrowing down options for planning your itinerary, I advise you to take each review with a grain of salt because users may in fact have ulterior motives when posting reviews.

Yelp Addresses the Issue

Yelp has designed algorithms to detect fake reviews, but unfortunately the system is imperfect. The review filter blocks 25% of posts submitted— some are fake, but some are mistaken as false and are actually true. Yelp filters these posts for a number of reasons: multiple reviews from the same IP address, detected bias, posts written by disgruntled employees, inappropriate content, etc. However, a number of fake reviews slip through the cracks, misleading Yelp users to have a false perception of a restaurant.

Yelp does not have a feature where users can report and immediately remove false reviews. Instead, it’s a process to remove a post. Due to Yelp’s strict policy for removing inaccurate posts, many reviews are left untouched and up to the user’s interpretation.

Yelp's system for filtering reviews is more focused on the star count than the actual content, allowing users to take advantage of the system.  And the more active a reviewer on Yelp, the less likely their review will be removed. Yelp is more focused on the extremity of the star rating and the characteristics of the reviewer and less concerned with the actual content of the posts, which can be problematic when potential consumers are too quick to trust Yelp’s reviews. So when you are making a decision of where to eat, be sure to keep this in mind. 

Overview of Fake Reviews

Fake reviews can either positively promote or harshly obstruct a business. For example, in some instances, restaurant employees have offered incentives to customers who praise their business on Yelp or write reviews themselves to promote their business, or in other instances, customers have written false reviews for personal reasons, possibly to receive compensation in the form of free meals or to get back at a nemesis that is in some way tied to the restaurant’s well-being.

Skewed Yelp profiles have huge implications on restaurants, considering the statistic that Yelp gets approximately 89 million mobile and 79 million desktop visitors monthly. This suggests that a handful of consumers trust Yelp and allow this application to determine their decisions, either to avoid or try a new restaurant. A study also found that 70% of consumers look at online reviews before making their purchase. Even at quick glance, a restaurant’s Yelp profile serves as a popular indicator of their performance and can sway customer’s decisions not only for where to go but what to order. Therefore, it can be extremely disappointing when Yelp’s reviews misrepresent a business and leave customers disappointed that reality didn’t quite live up to their expectations.

Inaccurate Positive Reviews

Restaurants sometimes offer a free appetizer or discount on a menu item for a positive Yelp review in return. For example, here in LA, Katsuya offers a complimentary spicy tuna with crispy rice in return for checking into their restaurant on Yelp. One may argue that this is an honest marketing strategy and that it is a smart idea for restaurants to utilize Yelp as a platform to promote their business.

However, I would argue that offering incentives to write Yelp reviews may lead to biased reviews, leaving potential consumers with and a skewed perception of the restaurant under consideration. This imposes a pressure on consumers to emphasize the highlights of their experience at the restaurant and disregard potential flaws they noticed. Assuming that the incentive offered by restaurants boosts a consumer’s mood and therefore enhances their overall experience, it is likely that the resulting reviews possess bias. This does not mean that all reviews triggered by an incentive are biased, but Yelp users should be cautious of these elevated posts as users are pressured from restaurants and influenced by external factors

Faulty Negative Reviews

There are also fake reviews written from customers with a different motive: to damage a restaurant’s online rating for personal reasons. A few of these cases have gone public, bringing awareness to Yelp users that fake posts are indeed an issue. And for some businesses, these extremely negative reviews can be the determining factor impeding potential customers from wanting to try it out.

It may be argued that even false reviews hold a hint of truth and offer businesses points of focus to improve their business. However, Yelp is not designed to offer businesses constructive criticism; it is designed to provide prospective customers with honest reviews that ultimately drive decisions on where to eat. A dishonest post is a dishonest post, and because there is grey area about Yelp’s responsibility to remove posts, it is up to business managers to identify these reviews and compose an appropriate response.

Future Implications

Yelp has a remarkable effect on consumer’s decisions, and consequently business revenues. According to a Harvard study, “every star in a review leads to a 5-9% difference in revenue." Therefore, businesses feel pressure to take matters into their own hands and be proactive on Yelp, looking out for faulty reviews and composing appropriate responses to settle disputes and clear up any misunderstandings or miscommunications. It’s ultimately up to the consumers whether or not to trust what they read on Yelp, but it may be a good idea to start reading Yelp reviews with caution.