Could An IP Cost You Your Reviews?

Greg Sterling has posted a thought-provoking article summarizing current negative publicity centering on Yelp and its alleged extortion of local business owners. This CBS coverage features quotes from several small business owners who claim that Yelp representatives offered to push negative user reviews down the ranks in exchange for a monthly fee. Yelp’s response has implied that the business owners were simply being offered a premium-type listing.

Whatever the truth may be, one small facet of this controversy really caught my eye.

One of the local business owners was apparently accused of being a racist by a user who left a Yelp review. According to the business owner, Bill Kellinger, when he and his wife began paying Yelp’s $350.00/month fee, the negative review was pushed down. However, Kellinger’s small company then received further negative reviews as well as some positive reviews. The positive reviews were deleted and the new negative ones were allowed to remain.

How did Kellinger know that his customers had left positive reviews?

In going to Yelp, I found an answer to this question.

A Yelp spokeswoman says the reviews were removed because the company’s security system detected suspicious activity connected to the posts.

“It was identified that there was some activity in terms of gaming the system, or manipulating the review…”

Kellinger says he can explain. His wife keeps a laptop at the store and sometimes asks customers if they’d like to write a Yelp review. The favorable reviews removed by Yelp were all written at the store.

Read That Last Part Again
Recently, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying getting to know Michael Jensen of SoloSEO.com, and I was really impressed by a fantastic suggestion he gave for making it easier to get user reviews for local businesses. Here is David Mihm’s paraphrase of Michael’s tip given at the recent SMX Local Event:

…provide an incentive to motivate them (customers) such as offering free WiFi in your waiting area where the landing page defaults to your ‘Leave a Review’ page.

I love this suggestion, but maybe at this point you’re beginning to see where this blog post is going.

As I read it, Yelp is claiming they removed a local business owner’s positive reviews because they were all coming from the same laptop – likely the same IP address. Yelp may just have revealed one of their spam signals.

And, this has to make you wonder whether Google and Yahoo! may have similar spam policies operating behind the doors of Google Maps and Yahoo! Local.

I am writing this in order to ask you, my valued readers, whether you think that using a single company computer for the purpose of facilitating multiple user reviews might set off warnings in the spam-detecting regions of our favorite search engines?

And, if you do think this is possible, is there any way for a local business to safely implement Michael’s very cool suggestion?

I’d like to hear from you.

14 Responses to “Could An IP Cost You Your Reviews?”

  1. on 06 Aug 2008 at 1:53 am Michael Jensen

    Use a proxy that rotates IP’s. :)

  2. on 06 Aug 2008 at 2:00 am martijn

    For Google Maps you will have to use Google accounts. I don’t think Google way pay attention to IP thát much.
    They are aware of open wifi, hotspots, even promoting it. A lot of public institutions also share the same IP addresses.
    For Google this would mean a decrease in user-experience if the reviews weren’t allowed to be listed, just of IP.

  3. on 06 Aug 2008 at 5:28 am Will Scott

    Hi Miriam,

    Much as I love Michael’s suggestion I don’t think it’s an easy implementation for small businesses.

    I personally think that the act of having a laptop or wifi in the establishment on which users would leave reviews is completely in keeping with the spirit of Yelp. It’s a shame that, in response to spammers, they have to look for such a low-quality indicator of “gaming”.

    I think Yelp is getting to the point where, like Google, they need to remember http://www.google.com/search?q=define%3Anoblesse+oblige

    Will

  4. on 06 Aug 2008 at 6:34 am David Mihm

    You are probably right about IP address being a spam indicator…

    …BUT I think given all the flak Yelp is taking, it’s going to make dramatic steps to improve its review / reviewspam system. It would be too easy to continue to get negative publicity and lose customers otherwise…

    …and BTW, who is spending $350/mo on Yelp?! It’s a shame that these small businesses aren’t better informed about Local SEO…

  5. on 06 Aug 2008 at 9:15 am Will Scott

    @David,

    Amen brother — I could do a lot better for that small business than a Yelp enhanced listing for $350 / month.

    Will

  6. on 06 Aug 2008 at 12:07 pm admin

    Michael -
    What a pleasure to have you comment on this. I completely loved your suggestion, and now you’ve offered a solution. A proxy. Now, whether a small business owner is going to think of that, I don’t know, but it would hopefully remove any concerns.

    Thank you for stopping by!
    Miriam

  7. on 06 Aug 2008 at 12:13 pm admin

    Martijn -
    I think your point about stifling the richness of the user experience is such a good one and I agree with that sentiment.

    However, I cannot forget that I watched a local business owner get everything all together to run a terrific campaign asking his loyal customers for reviews. He expended lots of effort and his plan was totally above-board. He got 30 great reviews in Google and Google promptly nuked them all. We were all left wondering if getting too many reviews too quickly set off a spam signal at Google.

    So much for getting geared up and excited about the review process! So, while it seems totally unfair to me that Google might reward all that effort with punitive action, we’ve seen that they do things like this and that there is then very little recourse for the business owner. Thus, my concern that reviews coming in on the same IP could be just one of those things Yelp, Google, Yahoo or another site would decide was unacceptable, even if it’s not good horse sense.

    Miriam

  8. on 06 Aug 2008 at 12:31 pm admin

    Good Morning Will & David -

    Hahaha…I know…$350!???

    That’s more than a Yahoo directory listing – a month!

    David – Thank you for validating that the IP thing could be a concern. It just SOUNDS like something Google would have issues with, so to speak.

    Nice to see you both here.
    Miriam

  9. on 06 Aug 2008 at 2:32 pm Bill Kellinger

    I am the owner (with my wife) of Razzberry Lips . Yes, YELP is very low tech and uses IP addresses to filter out positive reviews they feel are “suspect”.Their 2nd indicator is the number of reviews ( the fewer, the higher likelihood of “review” fraud . The other night Yelp had a spokesperson named Stephanie Ichinose on CBS try to justify their “policy”.
    Poor thing,she really choked and embarrassed Yelp by poorly reading a prepared script. It was obviously her first time on TV someone dropped the que cards.
    Yelp also lies about the 10 million viewers per month. They conveniently leave out the fact that 2/3′s of these are repeat viewers .
    So this leaves them with 3 million unique viewers. Also , half of these are in the SF Bat Area.

    Here is my experience and observations on Yelp:
    omments

    * Yelp’s sales reps use negative postings as a “lead source” to call the owner and attempt to sell Business Owner Accounts. * I received a phone call from a sales rep named Summer who stated that negative reviews could be moved to the bottom of the page and possibly removed in the future if I purchased a Business Owner Account. * The hypocrisy of the Yelp founders Jeremy Stoppelman and Russel Simmons is legendary , and is further amplified by their removal of my negative “review” of Yelp on their own website. So much for , “The voice of the people” or “Real People. Real Reviews” * Yelp hires paid “Yelpers” $15 / dollars an hour to write reviews because their business model is not succeeding. The ads for paid Yelpers can be found on Craigslist in every metro area in the U.S. You could call this, ” Paid People . Fake Reviews”. * On Friday July 4th , 2008 , the SF Chronicle ran an article about how Yelp removes establishments from Yelp if they complain or expose the Yelp hypocrisy publicly. * It is a known fact that Yelp is losing money at a burn rate that could put them out of business by next year. There is another popular website which has a “dead pool” in which the overwhelming number of readers select Yelp to go out of business within a year. They are desperate and are not performing a level public service as they represent. * They allow any unfounded accusation to remain on their site , no matter how inaccurate , without any regard for validation. * I attempted several times to contact the founders Jeremy Stoppelman and Russel Simmons regarding the situation described in the Mike Cassidy article. As cowards will do , they hid behind their desks. * My wife’s business will continue to thrive for many more successful years and will outlast Yelp as they circle the drain throwing money at paid Yelpers and salespeople.

  10. on 06 Aug 2008 at 4:00 pm Bill Kellinger

    All of this will be soon be a non issue.
    If you follow the funding trail , you’ll see that Bessemer Venture Partners
    has been actively shopping Yelp to buyers with no luck.
    The word is that NO ONE believes the number of users that Yelp execs say they attract and their
    IT systems are inadequate. Stepanie Ichinose was recently caught in a lie at a Funding Press Conference
    that might be recoverable. She claimed to potential Yelp suitors that they have 10 million viewers per month.
    After intense questioning , she backtracked and admitted that 7 million of those viewers were repeat visitors, actually
    leaving them with a paltry 3 million / month and the majority of those in the SF Bay Area .

  11. on 06 Aug 2008 at 4:12 pm admin

    Dear Bill,
    I greatly appreciate you taking the time to comment personally on this situation.

    In our industry, we have repeatedly seen large companies make huge errors in handling public criticism or customer complaints. The fact that Yelp removed not only your negative review of them, but apparently, your whole profile from their index (I noticed this last night while researching this piece) does not speak to their credit.

    The smart companies meet crises of this kind head-on, with transparency and tact. Yelp’s response is not coming off well, so your family can at least take comfort in that.

    The accusations you and other local businesses are making against Yelp are very similar to complaints made against another company, Merchant Circle, last year. It was a very like situation, with business owners claiming Merchant Circle was actually creating negative reviews in order to get merchants to opt into their program to protect themselves.

    Very serious accusations.

    User reviews are a two-edged sword. As your company has seen, they can work hugely to your benefit, but even one customer airing their grudge can be so damaging. Complicating this situation with ‘hush money’ would only worsen the confusion. At the very least, I hope the current publicity is bringing to light the potential abuses the situation is prone to.

    And, though this is has been such an unhappy experience for your family, I sincerely hope that other local business owners will learn one important thing from it:

    If you suspect a company of irregular business practices, DOCUMENT what you are seeing. Take screenshots of changes being made to profiles, indexes, etc. This is the kind of vivid proof that changes hearsay and opinion to fact.

    I’m sure your business will move on past this, Bill, and we’ll be waiting to see Yelp’s next move.

    Thank you again for your comments.
    Miriam


  12. [...] several times in posts and comments on this blog: What is a legitimate review? Miriam Ellis offers a thought provoking post in which she suggests that a site like Yelp might remove multiple positive reviews coming from a [...]


  13. [...] Engaging in solicitation of reviews using a free WiFi or workstation at your location may lead to reviews getting filtered or removed (Miriam Ellis, SEO Igloo). [...]


  14. [...] that he could pay money to Yelp to have his negative reviews moved to the bottom of his profile. I blogged about this and the business owner featured in the CBS news coverage of this story showed up to leave a comment [...]

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