Case Study: Yelp Scrubbing Away Bad Reviews
Throughout the early 2000s, customers began posting product, company and media reviews to online websites for other users to base purchase or interaction decisions. These online spaces, called Third Party Review Sites (TPRS) allow users to (sometimes anonymously) post reviews of their recent purchases, retail/service experiences and interactions. Previous literature suggests that the public is more likely to trust reviews on TPRS than traditional advertising or public relations tactics because they are perceived as honest, unbiased and truthful depictions of personal experiences. This makes TPRS a powerful representation of an online brand, company, or organization. This is also why in 2014, organizations that attempted to manipulate, change, and edit their online reviews were heavily criticized.
The term “scrubbing” relates to an organization attempting to “scrub” or remove negative reviews from its profile and replace them with fake positive ones. This artificially raises an organization's average rating and hides bad reviews from the public. Although legal, the act of scrubbing is now seen as highly unethical and questionable by public relations practitioners. Despite the bad reputation of scrubbing, the world’s largest TPRS, Yelp, was accused in 2014 of that exact practice by a group of San Francisco small businesses.
The small businesses claimed that Yelp unfairly approached them demanding payment for electronic advertisements in exchange for scrubbing its profile clean of bad reviews. They argued in the San Francisco Federal Appeals Court that Yelp demanded the small businesses buy expensive online advertisements to artificially inflate the reviews on their online profiles. The group of small businesses claimed that this tactic produced an environment of unfair competition because larger businesses would be able to pay for the service, and small businesses would lack the funds to do so. Therefore, the larger business would have better control over its online presence and reputation, creating an unfair advantage.
Course of Action and Consequences
Yelp flatly denied scrubbing was occurring on its site, calling the small businesses a part of “fringe commenters” who accuse the company of accepting money to remove bad reviews. In its public statement, Yelp accused this “fringe” group of “having an axe to grind” and implying these were unfounded and unethical accusations.
The lawsuit by the San Francisco small businesses was quickly denied in court, and the ruling in favor of Yelp called the tactic “legitimate advertising services.” Although the lawsuit approved of scrubbing as a practice, the public’s reaction when they found out Yelp was scrubbing reviews suggested an ethical boundary was violated with this “legitimate” advertising service.
The San Francisco small businesses created a new platform, Yelp-Sucks.com. In response, the public took notice and began to complain and contribute their own stories of reviews being removed from the site. Users added testimonials and shared the website with a larger audience, accelerating the spread of information about Yelp’s scrubbing. Again, although Yelp denied scrubbing was taking place, the user data on Yelp-Sucks.com provided evidence to the contrary and challenged Yelp’s own reputation.
As Yelp-Sucks.com gained popularity and news of scrubbing spread, Yelp continued to deny the accusations, referencing the site as “fringe” and implying the small businesses were on a mission to get even with Yelp after they lost the lawsuit. The public, who continued to voice outrage on Yelp-Sucks.com gained momentum and lead a mass exodus from the site by hundreds of users who deleted their accounts.
Although Yelp continued to deny scrubbing was taking place, in early 2015, Yelp deleted thousands of reviews very publicly from Dr. Walter J. Palmer (a Minnesota dentist) who was accused of hunting and killing a famous lion in a protected Zimbabwe park. Anti-hunting advocates posted angry reviews of Palmer to Yelp, however the platform quickly removed them all stating they were against the “terms and service agreement” of the site. As the issue gained salience and news coverage, more attention was paid to Yelp’s removal of the protest reviews and history with scrubbing.
In an effort to address the scrubbing crisis, Yelp introduced a “pop-up” notification for profiles that were suspected of scrubbing or paying for fake reviews. Using an algorithm based on the analysis of thousands of fake reviews, Yelp announced it was now launching this new initiative so that users would be more aware when looking at honest versus scrubbed profiles. The pop-up notifications were framed as a service to the public and a way for the platform to protect the integrity of its information.
Although Yelp still denies scrubbing and has introduced initiatives to prevent unethical behavior on its platform, many users and companies still claim that unethical practices are ongoing. In 2014, a class action lawsuit was filed against Yelp that identified 2,000 companies who filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission. These complaints ranged from unfair competition violations to accusations of false advertising. Rather than deny or directly address these accusations, Yelp adopted a policy of silence, and instead promoted its “pop-up” notification initiative.
Moral of the Story
Yelp continues to deny scrubbing is taking place on its platform, despite recent lawsuits that claim otherwise. Instead, the company portrays its “pop-up” notifications as cutting edge and an innovative approach to preventing dishonest reviews. It is unclear if scrubbing continues to take place on the site or to what extent this has damaged the public’s perception of the brand. Public relations practitioners should learn the harm that denying unethical practices can have from Yelp, and create ethical guidelines that oppose this unethical practice.
Baek, H., Ahn, J., & Choi, Y. (2012). Helpfulness of online consumer reviews: Readers' objectives and review cues. International Journal of Electronic Commerce, 17(2), 99-126. doi:10.2753/JEC1086-4415170204.
Matthews, M. (2016, Feb 4). “Still upset about Cecil the Lion? Mobile group joins worldwide protest.” Alabama News. Retrieved from http://www.al.com/news/mobile/index.ssf/2016/02/still_upset_about_cecil_the_li.html
Sperber, J. (2014). Yelp and labor discipline: How the internet works for capitalism. New Labor Forum, 23(2), 68-74.Next Page: Lesson 2 Assessment