Yelp.com, for those of you not in the know, was started by 2 former PayPal employees. It’s a website that features reviews of local businesses submitted by users of the website. Yelp has some great social networking features as well as a reputation system that encourages users to stick to the site and submit more and more reviews. It’s actually quite neat.

Let me preface this with the fact that I started out loving Yelp. I came to rely on it for every restaurant I wanted to try out. I even introduced my wife to it who then proceeded to go on a Yelp rampage. Within a period of a month she had written about 60 reviews and proceeded to become a Yelp Elite member – a status bestowed on users who are both prolific and write good quality content.

My love affair with Yelp started to turn sour when I used it not from the point of view of a review consumer, but as a business owner. I teach Chinese martial arts (aka wushu) at one of the most reputable schools in Chicago. Working in technology, I realize the importance of having an Internet presence that extends beyond just having a static website. In order to build a good online reputation for the school, I asked all my students to write their review of the school on Yelp. Most of the students aren’t so Internet savvy and hadn’t even heard of Yelp. I was basically recommending Yelp to this group of people.

I got a total of 28 students to review the school. Everybody wrote their honest impression of the school. I didn’t force or coach anyone to write what they didn’t want to write. I just told them to get on the site and review us. My thought was that if you were looking for a wushu school in Chicago on Yelp, you’ll gravitate to the one with the most reviews provided that the reviews were meaningful.

Do No Evil

This is when the problem began. After a few days, the reviews started disappearing one by one on the Yelp site until I went from 28 reviews to 18 reviews. I was pissed. I know you can flag reviews, and I suspected that maybe a competing business who’s reviews weren’t so glowing was flagging my students’ reviews. I emailed Yelp, and they didn’t tell me anything useful. Their response was a cookie cutter legalese mumbo jumbo saying that their only concern was the quality of the site and that they had final say of what when on the site. Since my wife was an Elite member, I thought maybe she would have more pull. Again she was given the exact same cookie cutter response. I wasn’t ready to give up on Yelp just yet and found out a friend of mine in Palo Alto knew a Yelp employee. I contacted that Yelp employee and ran into the same brick wall. At that point I just threw up my hands and said screw it.

Nowadays I never go back to Yelp for any reviews. They’ve totally lost me as a visitor. I just can’t help but wonder what other perfectly good businesses reviewed on there have totally been shafted. When you have a lot of reviews, losing a couple here and there is not a big deal. But if you had a small business and all you had were 4 glowing reviews and 2 of them got deleted, that could make the difference between the visitor going to you or to the next guy with 2 equally good reviews.

Social review sites are popping up all over the net. All the major players like Google, MSN, Yahoo, and AOL have them. We’ve reached the point where users no longer trust in traditional marketing and advertising. Proclaiming you’ve got the best tacos is town is not enough. People want to read what other people have to say about your tacos. In the future, as people get more and more net savvy, the differentiating factor of these review sites is whether the user can trust these reviews or not. As for Yelp, they’ve totally lost my trust and until they make it right I’m going to keep telling people not to go there.

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