Yelp's Robot Spam Filter Wasn't Good Enough

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In addition to its robot spam filtration system, Yelp will now post the consumer alert above in an attempt to purify its at time spammy reviews. The online review site, like any other, has to contend with all sorts of review gaming, including businesses paying people for stars. Up until now, Yelp relied on an automated filter that would detect these and other kinds faulty reviews, sending them off of a business's Yelp page, into a separate spam folder. It worked to an extent: "Businesses that are pretty aggressive about soliciting almost always have a lot of reviews filtered," Yelp's director of Business Outreach, Luther Lowe told The Wire last May.

But that system was nowhere near perfect. For one, the filter doesn't affect the number of stars an establishment gets. So people not reading the reviews could still get a skewed impression. Also, sometimes the filter would syphon non-Spammy reviews, giving an equally misinforming picture. Useful or not, apparently this robot hasn't deterred businesses from trying to buy higher rankings anyway. To make its system more reliable, then, Yelp has created its own scarlet letter system. "We’ve put on our detective hats, tracked down these rogue solicitations and are now giving you a heads up," explains a post on the company blog. "Starting today, when we’ve determined that there have been significant attempts to pay for reviews, you may see a warning (like the one below) that some shady practices may be at play." The badge will stay up for 90 days, both alerting Yelpers of the dirty deed and deterring merchants from continuing this practice—in theory.

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The reason for the extra measure, is that Yelp needs to maintain credibility to keep people coming back to the site. Without trustworthy reviews, why would people go to Yelp for recommendations? Other sites have taken similar measures to maintain their reputation. TripAdvisor, which got a lot of press for its own spam issues and can no longer claim its reviews as truthful, has a similar method for warning people about spammy reviews, putting up the red badge below to warn people about these false advertisements. Both Yelp and TripAdvisor claim these phony reviews happen rarely. (Less than 1% of 555,000 reviewed lodgings have earned a "red badge," TripAdvisor told USA Today's Laura Bly.) Yet, they think this little step will add some trust to the system. "To help put this in perspective, the large majority of businesses on Yelp play by the rules and work tirelessly to provide the best customer service and products to their clients," continues the Yelp post. "Rest assured we are not going to let a few bad apples spoil the bunch."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.