By Rob Pegoraro
Tuesday, April 6, 2010; 1:30 PM
Yelp announced two changes to its review system last night that it hopes will quell accusations of extortion.
First, the San Francisco-based site, which collects user reviews of local businesses, services and other places, will allow people to see write-ups that had been whisked out of sight by its automatic filter. Second, it will no longer offer establishments the option of paying extra to have a "Favorite Review" displayed atop its Yelp page.
Yelp's habits of hiding reviews based on criteria it has yet to explain in much detail (a cute video on its blog offers only generalities) and charging businesses for prominent displays of positive assessments have led critics to accuse it of running a protection racket. See, for instance, this story by my colleague Michael Rosenwald. There and elsewhere, Yelp has denied those claims.
Yesterday's changes make sense to me, but I don't see how they'll end this controversy. Yelp makes it a little too difficult to look up reviews that it had screened--you have to click on a small "Filtered" link at the bottom of an establishment's page, then type in a random series of characters to verify that you're a person and not a program--and leaves some mystery about what got them hidden.
Consider the situation with one establishment cited in Rosenwald's piece, the Scion restaurant in Dupont Circle. Yelp's page for it lists 43 reviews, with an average score of three and a half out of five stars. But when you look through the 27 reviews Yelp filtered, it's hard to see a clear pattern: Some five-star raves got canned, but so did some one-star pans of the place. Most of the filtered reviews came from users who had written few reviews and had no friends listed on Yelp, but having five Yelp friends did not help the cause of one reviewer.
A similar situation exists with Yelp's take on another local establishment, the Lincoln Memorial. Far more reviews went through; with 133 listed, only 11 were filtered. But it's hard to say what disqualified this informative, five-star write-up from a Canadian tourist:
"You don't have to be American to love this spot. Lincoln will inspire you. Try to go on a weekday, because it's an absolute zoo on weekends in the summer."
Both the Scion and Lincoln Memorial filtered-listings pages also feature numerous blank reviews that Yelp says were removed, not just filtered, for "violating our Review Guidelines." Presumably, they were the same sort of crude spam that we try to junk automatically here, but you can only guess.
I don't envy Yelp's job. Setting up a system for user input that allows for dissent but keeps the conversation civil and informative has repeatedly taxed our abilities, as Post ombudsman Andy Alexander noted in his column Sunday. That piece reports that The Post will adopt a tiered system, in which comments from readers with a history of playing by the rules will be trusted while those from others will be hidden by default, but viewable on request--somewhat like Yelp's new regime.