Since 2012, Yelp has caught nearly 5,000 businesses engaging in shady tactics, like paying customers for favorable ratings or hiring people to write phony reviews. Now, the company has a new tool to help people — and maybe the feds — track businesses that have tried to manipulate their standing on the review platform.
Yelp is releasing a new index that tracks every U.S establishment it’s ever caught engaging in “suspicious” activity to influence its reviews. The company has made some of this information available in the past. Yelp places temporary alerts on businesses’ pages when it discovers fake reviews, and regularly releases transparency reports detailing its moderation efforts. But the index is the first time the company has offered a single place where users can find a historical record of every business that’s ever been subject to such a warning as well as a current list of businesses with active alerts on their pages .
For Yelp, the index is both its latest move in a long-running war on fake reviews, as well as a nod to a changing regulatory environment in which fake reviews are attracting increasing scrutiny from regulators. The FTC recently proposed a formal ban on fake reviews with penalties of up to $50,000 for businesses caught buying, selling or manipulating online reviews.
Yelp has said it supports such a rule. The company’s head of user operations, Noorie Malik, points out the company has previously worked with the FTC to notify them when it discovers fake reviews and the sometimes complex operations behind them. “We'd love to get to a place where this new index develops into a regular resource for others, whether it's FTC, consumers, regulators or other sites,” Malik tells Engadget.
But she’s also quick to point out that the index is also meant to help Yelp users make “educated decisions” about where to spend their money. While you may not think much about visiting a coffee shop with a history of paying people to leave positive Yelp reviews, your feelings may be very different if you’re looking for a contractor to remodel your home, or for a daycare or moving company (all of which appear in the index).
Of course, fake reviews isn’t just a Yelp problem. Malik notes that phony reviews are often coordinated on other websites among organized groups of review rings. “We also hope that it inspires other review platforms to take a firmer stance against reduced solicitation and incentivisation,” she says.