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Yelp starts branding companies for buying fake reviews

Employees of the online review site Yelp at the East Coast headquarters of the tech company in New York City. New York is cracking down on fake online reviews.

Social media sites have made it easy to get recommendations for everything from restaurants to doctors and dog walkers. But as the old saying goes, "If a thing seems to good to be true...?"

These days, your friend might be getting a kick back for posting that cute raincoat on Facebook. And that trendy-looking, new hair salon might be paying people to write fake reviews. Yelp is taking a bold step today to “out” businesses that are paying for reviews. If it catches a business doing it, they’re going to post an alert on their site that reads, “We caught someone red-handed trying to buy reviews for this business.”

Weeding out “fake” or “purchased” reviews isn’t new to Yelp. The site has an algorithm that monitors its 30 million reviews regularly. It sweeps out shady reviews and highlights trustworthy ones, said Vince Solitto the head of public affairs at Yelp. “And as a result, we display about 80 percent of the reviews that are submitted to our site to protect consumers from fake and shilled review content,” Soilitto said.

That means 20 percent of the reviews submitted to Yelp aren’t posted because, for the most part, they are fake or paid for. But recently Yelp’s team of crack investigators took its sleuthing into real world.

“We noticed some advertisements on Craigslist and elsewhere where business owners were offering to pay money in exchange for people to write the positive reviews,” Sollitto said.

So Yelp employees posed as “elite” reviewers and answered the job listings. “Elite reviewer” status  is awarded to people who’ve done lots of reviews. “And we saw that some business owners were willing to pay large sums of money especially for reviews written by elite folks,” Sollito said.

How much? Anywhere between $5 and $200. Yelp caught about a dozen companies in the sting, including a moving company and a jewelry store.

“I think it’s going to work,” said Bing Lui, a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois in Chicago who researches fake reviews. “It makes the store very, very careful.”

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.

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