This is our Deep Dive Into Local from November 13th, 2017. In our Deep Dive series, we take a closer look at one thing in local that caught our attention and deserves a longer discussion.
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Mike: Hi, welcome to our “Deep Dive” with Mike Blumenthal and Mary Bowling. I am recording from Santa Monica today. We have a Local U coming up shortly. It will probably have transpired by the time this publishes but… So I’m in Santa Monica, and you’ll be here tomorrow. So I look forward to seeing you in person.
Mary: All right.
Mike: So this we’ll look at reviews which have been a hot topic this week in a number of ways. There was an article at Local Search Pros about a review solicitation company’s reviews being taken down at Google, as well as a number of other reviews.
They speculated they were pre-filling in the stars and that something about the way they were asking is Google couldn’t determine the source of those reviews. So we don’t know the full story on why they were taken down, but something they were doing Google perceived algorithmically as abusive, and reviews from July through October for these guys, from many customers, were taken down.
Mary: So, are they going to come back or are they just gone?
Mike: The PR response from the company was that they were working with Google to try to get them back. Typically, when reviews are nuked due to the algorithm, very difficult to get them back.
Mary: And I know this affected BirdEye. Was there anybody else that was caught up in this?
Mike: BirdEye is the only one we know of, and it had to do with the fact they were pre-filling stars. Plus, there was something about the physical way they were asking that Google couldn’t determine the source of the reviews and there may have been other factors as well, which being under a non-disclosure, I can’t fully divulge at this point. But there may have been other factors as well.
Those were the ones that were speculated publicly and that BirdEye seemed to address. They wrote an explanation in this article and it was sort of, kind of like a flux-capacitor-failure kind of article.
Mary: Yes. So, in my opinion, it’s really important that we make sure that we’re associating with platforms not just for reviews but for everything that keep up with the algorithms and are as white hat as they can possibly be, because we can get in trouble by ourselves. We don’t need a platform to help us get in trouble with our reviews. We need a platform to help us stay out of trouble.
Mike: And just in the nature of full disclosure, obviously I own a review company — GetFiveStars. And we get criticized for having a little bit lower review yield rate, but I think it comes from these conservative decisions to try to stay well within the guidelines and not try to skirt the edges of them. If you try to skirt the edges of them, you run into problems. But this wasn’t the only thing in reviews this week. Clearly, Yelp is acting “Yelpish” once again.
Mary: Yelpish. It’s amazing how much that rhymes with selfish.[laughter]
Mike: So, they put out a proclamation that anybody who was caught soliciting reviews, any business, will get the little badge of embarrassment on their listing. They also simultaneously sent out emails to agencies that they suspect of doing review solicitation and warned them off.
And then in the Search Engine Land article, and this is news that I had heard elsewhere previously, but was that they are telling companies that have access to their API that those companies can’t ask for third-party reviews, only first party reviews.
In other words, they can ask for reviews for the business website but they can’t ask for reviews at Yelp. And they can only not ask for reviews at Yelp, but Yelp is saying no review solicitation at Google, Facebook or TripAdvisor either, if they want access to the API. And interestingly, somebody said to me that if they violate terms of the API, they’re liable for fines of up to $25,000 per day.
Mary: Wow, craziness…
Mary: …that anyone would agree to that, that Yelp would be… Well, I guess there are a handful of categories where it might be worth allowing yourself to be blackmailed like that.
Mike: So there’s that. And again, when I speculated about it, I mean…clearly, Jeremy Stoppelman thinks that asking for reviews is inappropriate. We live in capitalism, and in capitalism, businesses, small businesses, large businesses, have been asking for reviews since the dawn of capitalism.
“Would you write me a letter of recommendation? Would you tell your friend about me?” So now it’s online. I don’t think he’s going to fundamentally change that behavior. I think what he’s going to end up doing is cutting off his nose to spite his face, in that he’s going to get fewer and fewer reviews at Yelp.
I think Yelp is under pressure on a number of fronts. Certainly, their expansion in Europe failed. I see Facebook moving into the review space aggressively with their new local app. I see that as being directly up against Yelp. I see TripAdvisor being very successful in the space where Yelp used to dominate, which is restaurants. I see OpenTable being very successful there. I see Google killing it on the review front.
When I look at average reviews per location, we see one per month at Yelp. We see one per month at Facebook. We see three per month at TripAdvisor. We see five per month over a much larger sample at Google. Right, I mean, Google is killing it at reviews. And so, yes, they are letting some spam through. Maybe a little bit more than Yelp. I don’t disagree with that, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near 20% of their reviews are spam. I think it’s more like 5% are spam, and I think once they figure out how to clean that up, they’re going to have a great review corpus with massive data at scale that Yelp is not going to be able to compete with.
Mary: So, and speaking about the badges that Yelp is going to put up on your page, it’s consumer alert, something’s fishy here, and it talks about number of positive reviews for the business originating from the same IP address, which may mean that someone is trying to artificially inflate the business’s rating. This stays up for 90 days. But over at TripAdvisor, they’re having some big problems with their reviews.
Mike: Before we move on from Yelp, one other thing they said. They would reduce the rank of the business…
Mary: Oh yes.
Mike: Right, as well … and somebody last week emailed me and said, “I have three … two negative reviews — one-star reviews from newbies that are showing, and three positive one-star reviews that aren’t showing. What can I do?” So, the bias in their algorithm actually drives the business to the behavior of asking for reviews.
Mary: Right. Or, it drives them away from wanting to have anything to do with Yelp.
Mike: Or drives them away, right.
Mary: Yes, because they distrust it so much.
Mike: All right. So, speaking of badges, back to you. Sorry for interrupting.
Mary: So, over at TripAdvisor there’s a scandal brewing that’ll be really interesting to watch and see how it plays out. Long ago as 2010, women were writing reviews on TripAdvisor saying that they were raped or otherwise sexually assaulted at three really big, really highly-rated resorts in Cancun. And TripAdvisor was just taking them down. And Mike heard, I think, that it was because it wasn’t family friendly to talk about sexual assaults on the internet.
One of the ladies said she was told that they took hers down because it was hearsay rather than first-party. But the whole thing is really troubling because they’ve got these three huge resorts in Cancun with great four-something ratings, almost five ratings for all of them, and they’re taking reviews down that have an impact on people’s safety.
And you can see how this is such a mess … What’s the right thing for consumers? What’s the right thing for the hotels? What’s the right thing for TripAdvisor? And I just feel like personally, I can’t trust TripAdvisor reviews anymore because of how many more have they been taking down and for what reasons?
Mike: Yes, it’s a particularly egregious situation of social risk. I mean, part of the problem … the interesting thing to me always been about reviews is that it’s this intersection of people and technology at very large scale and where these companies have acted largely irresponsibly. I mean, TripAdvisor’s clearly irresponsible in this situation. But Yelp is irresponsible in the opposite direction. Google is irresponsible in not having paid attention to their algorithm that cleans up fake reviews.
We’re in a situation where reviews have become incredibly important in our society and where there’s virtually no regulation of how these companies should act, or the regulation that is there lets them off scot-free. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act basically says they have no liability one way or the other about these reviews. There’s no accountability, legal or otherwise. So it’s like, “Ahhh.” I mean, we’re in the wild west once again and we’re relying on these companies to self-police, and until such time as something like the TripAdvisor thing happens, nothing changes too much.
Mary: And what TripAdvisor is doing is they’re putting a pink notice up on the site that basically says, “These reviews may not reflect some things that have been happening in the news lately.” And putting the onus on the person reading the reviews as to whether they want to research this more or not. And to me that’s really taking the sleazy way out, saying, “Here are our reviews. They might not include some things that are really, really important to you that we’re not going to tell you about.”
I mean, I just don’t see the point of reading TripAdvisor reviews if they don’t feel the need to allow true customers to leave true opinions or true stories about what happened to them at resorts or hotels. At the very least, they could’ve been publishing these and then having the resort answer it and say “We’re apologizing for what’s happening,” and giving us a report on what happened in the aftermath. Was anyone arrested? Did they investigate? What did the resort do about it? We were not even given the opportunity to see that there was a problem and that the resort tried to resolve it.
Mike: I guess the question I have is to some extent, these review platforms, because they serve these commercial needs, are woefully inadequate to serve society.
Mike: And they each manifest this in a different way because of their internal policies. But, time and again, because these guys are protected, they don’t have any real responsibility. There are no public standards or how they should behave. I mean, obviously, it’s time for society to say, “Here’s how we want reviews to work. Let’s choose some consensus and let’s codify that with penalties and laws and rules that these guys … that everybody has responsibility.” The consumer has a responsibility to be truthful. The business has a responsibility to not cheat the system, and the review sites have a responsibility to validate these reviews at some measure. So Google could long ago have started saying, “Gee, you’ve been in this location, so at least we know that you have some likelihood that you actually went in this store.”
Mary: Right. I know. I think that we, as a society, are going to have to shift to looking at places where we’re looking at verified reviews. For example, at Amazon, they know you bought something. At Google, they know you at least went there. At hotels.com, they know you booked a room on their service, so they know that you went there. And Google seems to be working towards that with their trusted reviewers, their local guides, and critics.
Mike: And also, in home service ads, they know whether a transaction takes place. Although those…oddly, those reviews at home service ads are often a different silo and you can’t…if you find that business through your other searches, you can’t really see those. So there’s two silos of reviews. It’s not clear how they’re going to bring them together.
So, the review space is evolving. Interestingly, if Google does start validating reviews based on location one way or another, either overtly or private or not it’s going to put Yelp at a disadvantage because they’re not going to know that information. They don’t have a lot of transactional data. They don’t have a lot of reservations to their platform. Unlike OpenTable which has…really knows whether somebody made a reservation or not, or hotels.com knows that there was a transaction. I think Yelp is going to be further at a disadvantage in that game, where Google will be able to attribute these with some assurance to actual physical presence because they have control over so much of the cell phone data.
It certainly portends a lot of changes in reviews. When I was thinking about this the other day, reviews are also a ranking factor, so there’s this high commercial incentive for businesses to manipulate them, which we just saw in Andrew’s report. So it’s a very weird sort of intersection of consumers, businesses, platforms, technology.
Mary: And some of the things, I think, that would be helpful in proving that you were giving a…at least that you were at least a customer of the business, are leaving a review on a mobile device while you’re sitting in the restaurant. But that seems to work against you in the algorithms if too many people…
Mike: Yes, or if you’re using the restaurant Wi-Fi.
Mary: Wi-Fi, yes. So, things that you think would be good, like people sitting in the restaurant, giving the restaurant a review, kinda proves that they were there for an hour and they left a review, but it can still hurt you.
Mike: Google’s algorithm particularly is on the other side. Like, in these review networks I’ve been looking at, the patterns are quite obvious. That person A reviews 50 businesses around the world – unlikely. Forty of those are in categories like home repairs – unlikely. And then that user reviewed three businesses in common with three other reviewers who had a similar pattern – unlikely.
And as you stretch through this, you would think that with machine learning and artificial intelligence, that these sort of patterns that are obvious to anybody who looks a little carefully could be obvious and should be a basis for improved spam fighting but doesn’t. If that’s happening, it’s not really clear that it is, although, again, Google is very non-transparent about which reviews don’t comply because they’re afraid of giving spammers a leg up.
Mike: I think we will see, going forward, several things: I think we will see better review spam algorithms from Google. I think Yelp is going to continue to kick and cry in the corner. I do think though that if the abuses continue, that we will see government intervention as well, and perhaps sooner’s better than later if it happens at a national level with reasonable rules and guidance from the FTC, as well as laws that make it criminal to cheat on these things. And criminal for the review sites to take down legitimate reviews that are helpful, like in the case of TripAdvisor.
Mike: Currently, these companies have no liability under Section 230 of the Communications, oddly-named Communications Decency Act. Essentially, crowdsource activity — these companies have blanket protection, even if they know that the review is false or even if they have no obligation to take it down. Or if they do take it down, they have no obligation to leave it up. They’re essentially blanket protected under federal law, no matter what their behavior, which is also strange.
Mary: Right, very strange.
Mike: Well, we live in strange times, so reviews are just a reflection of that. All right, well, thank you, Mary, for joining me on the discussion about reviews. Hopefully, folks find it useful. If you have some comments, let us know, email me, email@example.com, or Mary. We’re both on Twitter. We’re both on Local U. Leave comments, we’d love to hear from you. So with that, I’ll see you tomorrow in anticipation of Local U Santa Monica. Thanks.
Mary: All right. Thanks, Mike. Bye.