(Wait! But they won! How can that be bad?)
Glad you asked. There were three potential outcomes for this trial. The best outcome would be the judges finding that Yelp does not, in fact, alter reviews to favor advertisers. But that didn’t happen. The second best would have been a finding that they actually did and were guilty of extortion for advertising. The worst possible outcome would be what was actually ruled: that there is nothing wrong giving advertisers an edge on the site. The court said, tacitly, that it was pretty obvious that is what was happening but there is nothing illegal about it.
Now, no matter how many times they say otherwise (and they now have a disclaimer on every page), the customers and the businesses have been convinced by this ruling that Yelp is running a legally sanctioned protection racket.
And that spells the death of Yelp. They’ve lost the once intangible: the possibility that they were telling
the truth and that they were not gaming the review results in their system. this ruling confirms that they do which means their service can’t be trusted.
Yelp claims their algorithm does not differentiate between advertisers and non advertisers and I am ready to believe them. But a simple review of their site shows their algorithm is pretty screwed up.
I use Yelp often, mostly to find restaurants. I looked up barbecue restaurants last week, five total near me. At three of them, all which had advertising packages from Yelp, the reviews were in chronological order so you could trace how they did from when they opened to the current time. It’s a good thing to do it that way because you can see if they get better or worse over time. At the other two, who do not advertise, the reviews are jumbled and, amazingly enough, the most horrible reviews are at the top, most of them from when the restaurants first opened and were still getting their act together. One of them I was well acquainted with and I found the negative reviews at the top not the least accurate.
I also decided, just to check, to do an average of the review stars on the business I knew. Adding them up, I found they came to three stars. But Yelp had it at one and a half.
So, giving Yelp the benefit of the doubt, I’ve come to realize that if they are not extorting businesses, then their algorithm is crap.
This will not last long. The wolves are circling. I’m already reading posts by influential people about how bad Yelp is, even if you buy the advertising. In the past, I’ve advised several business on how to deal with negative reviews on Yelp and the damage can be fixed with proper content and engagement, but based on what I’ve seen, I can’t advise any business to engage with them.
The problem can be fixed… but fixing that kind of thing is what I get paid for. I’d rather not go down with the ship for free.