Attack of the Troll-Breeders
Social media networks are like cable providers. You sometimes hate the one you’re using, but it’s kind of necessary to have it around if you want to stay connected. Some may think Yelp is just a restaurant rating site, but it’s actually a “community” of sorts, with forums, clubs, and meet-ups. For the most part, Yelpers are real people, which is kind of Yelp’s downfall.
“Real People. Real Reviews”
Yelp is really easy to use. You don’t have to start a blog or pay for hosting, and there are no requirements of writing ability. The unintentional hilarity of some reviews has been documented on a popular Tumblr site, “F*** You, Yelper”. And if you’d like, you can even post reviews anonymously, and say what you’d like with no repercussions.
However, as with anything online- when anonymity is involved, there is always one constant- the troll.
There’s something odd about human nature that wasn’t fully realized until online comments and Yelp reviews became a thing. If you’re one of those with an unshaken faith in humanity, don’t ever look at the online comments in a local news article. Remember looking down at your school desk as a kid and seeing the word “FUCK”, or a swastika scratched into it? It’s the same guy, he’s just grown up and discovered the internet.
(insert profound quote about violence in human nature)
Negativity is something we fight every day. Being nice isn’t easy to do, because we have to employ complex concepts such as tact and optimism to pull it off. Being negative about things is our easy, lazy default. That’s what Yelp depends on in order to operate. When you have a good experience at a restaurant, it’s not in your nature to write a nice review on Yelp. If you have a bad experience, writing a Yelp review seems like a great idea.
If we lived in a world where everyone was as nice as Mister Rogers or Bob Ross, Yelp wouldn’t be able to turn a profit, because everyone would write glowing reviews. Why would a restaurateur pay Yelp for advertising if shiny, happy reviews will be there anyway?
Revolting, slanderous reviews of local businesses are the lifeblood of the Yelp platform. The sales model would be defunct without them. It’s really a clever model, because trolls don’t cost anything, and they’re a sustainable resource.
You know the formula. No matter how great a restaurant is, someone’s going to hate it. Maybe it’s a competitor, disgruntled employee, ex-husband or wife. To be a troll, you don’t even have to visit the restaurant. For example, you could start a Yelp account under the name Casey Anthony and review a Subway, just because you hate Subway with a bloody vengeance.
I dropped in to get a sandwich for me and my man. He’s allergic to tomato’s, so I like to go to Subway where I can see if they get tomato’s anywhere near his sandwich. Reginald gets mad if he even sees a tomato from afar.
Ordered a meatball and a cold cut combo. No tomato. Simple, right? Not at Subway, she’s gotta make it all complicated.
Bitch asks me what kind of bread I want. Like I want some whole wheat gluten free brown granola shit with seeds on it all up on my meatballs. Ignorant.
Then she asks if I want it toasted. Toast is for breakfast. If I want a toasted sandwich I’ll go to Quizno’s where they invented that shit.
It’s a meatball sub, everybody in the world knows how to make it but this bitch. She tries to put lettuce, tomato’s, pickles, fucking oil and vinegar, all over my meatballs. Fuck, I knew how to make a meatball sandwich back when I was watching Powerpuff Girls and braiding bracelets. Retarded.
When I got back, Reginald got his sandwich out, and damn. The end of his sandwich was harder than Jay-Z on his wedding night.
Listen. I know you don’t need a degree from ITT to get a job at Subway. She don’t know the difference between a eyebrow pencil and a Sharpie. I know damn well that she could tell that bread was stale the whole time, when she’s trying to put the whole fucking salad bar on my sandwich, while that submarine has to make it all the way down the line.
2 stars, just because at least Michelle Rodriguez didn’t put any tomato on Reginald’s cold cut combo.
Easy. And where does this review go? Well, right to the top of the results. And if Subway doesn’t play ball, the review is going to stay right there. It’s one hell of a racket.
A slew of businesses attempted to file a class-action lawsuit, which was thrown out by a San Francisco judge last year. The Yelp Class Action Website issued this statement:
“Yelp runs an extortion scheme in which the company’s employees call businesses demanding monthly payments, in the guise of “advertising contracts,” in exchange for removing or modifying negative reviews appearing on the website. The plaintiff, a veterinary hospital in Long Beach, California, asked that Yelp remove a false and defamatory review from the website. In response, as set forth in the lawsuit, Yelp refused to take down the review. Instead, the company’s sales representatives repeatedly contacted the hospital and demanded a roughly $300 per-month payment in exchange for hiding or removing the negative review.”
Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppleman fired back.
“The allegations are disappointing, not only because they are false, but because they ignore empirical evidence in favor of conspiracy theories. You can see for yourself: thousands of businesses that advertise on Yelp have both negative and positive reviews. Despite these counter-examples to the contrary (virtually no advertiser on Yelp has a perfect reputation), extensive media explorations that end inconclusively, and the absence of any actual evidence to support this theory, this unfortunate and untrue meme has taken on a life of its own. “
In other words, Yelp is doing nothing wrong, because small business owners across the US haven’t found a creative way to collect conclusive evidence.
Looking back at the scores of restaurants and bars across the nation that have tried and failed to sue the Yelp monolith, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that it can’t be done. Although some plaintiffs claim to have screenshots that suggest the alleged “pay to have reviews removed” behavior, a recording of a phone conversation with a Yelp agent exhibiting this behavior has yet to be recorded or entered into evidence. In Texas, if such a lawsuit were brought under the Deceptive Trade Practices Act and was successful, Yelp would be facing treble damages.
So how do you counter it? Aside from tapping their own phone line, a business owner’s only option is to flag bad reviews and submit a little form to Yelp explaining why it should be taken down, and hope for the best, while giving their sales vultures your direct email address in the process.
In Houston, a few vocal business owners are choosing to speak out in an attempt to impact on how Yelp reviews are perceived by the public.
Why? Because the Yelp elite can be hardcore. Two years ago, a customer at Anvil Bar & Refuge threatened to write a poor Yelp review if he didn’t get free drinks there, explaining that he was a prominent Yelp reviewer. The co-owner/manager (Bobby Heugel ) refused, and sure enough, the microblogger wrote a seething review about the place. When Heugel wrote about this experience online, he was contacted by a Yelp representative, who in follow-up conversation, suggested that Heugel participate in Yelp “advertising” campaigns, explaining that participants in these campaigns benefited from a direct relationship with Yelp in which damaging content would be more easily removed. Heugel took the battle to Twitter in order to raise public awareness about Yelp’s questionable practices, and since then, he has added an anti-Yelp sticker to the front door to make his message clear.
It makes you wonder: How many free drinks is this Yelper able to procure at other bars with this strategy? And how many bars and restaurants quietly pay Yelp to adjust these reviews? Of course, Yelp’s scavengers will make the point that they have no control over its users and can’t be held accountable for rogue Yelpers, but examples such as the above prove that the Yelp platform is dependent on malicious activity, which explains why nefarious reviews are not reviled or expunged- they are tacitly encouraged. The Yelp platform is a nutrient-rich environment for optimum troll growth and reproduction. It is a portal to chaos, a toxic cesspool of evil.
(insert profound quote about chaos theory)
Jenny Wang, founder of Houston Chowhounds and co-host /producer of Southbound Food radio, takes a “kill them with kindness” approach to counter Yelp’s tactics. She’s offered to write a five-star Yelp review for any restaurant that wants it. She even wrote a five-star for Uchi, a highly lauded Houston sushi restaurant- a week before it opened.
Ricky Craig, owner and chef at two Hubcap Grill locations, has had several struggles with the platform. Both of his locations are incredibly popular, and for good reason- Craig takes his burgers very seriously. At times, there can be a 30 minute wait due to the demand for Hubcap’s fresh ground burgers.
“Some Yelp reviewers can get downright personal”, Ricky explains. “They can talk about the appearance of me or my employees, resort to name calling, or try to bully you around. And there’s not much you can do about it.”
On more than one occasion, he has called out Yelp reviewers personally on Twitter or other networks, inviting them to meet him in person. “When they meet you in person, it’s a whole different ballgame. It’s easy to push people around from behind a computer screen.”
The issues don’t end with the reviewers themselves- Yelp’s sales methodology is called into question as well.
“I don’t understand why I can get a five star review, and Yelp just takes it down the next day. Next time you look, it has been replaced with a one star review from months ago. If you get a low-scoring or malicious review, it doesn’t go away. And these are strangers, people I’ve never met before.”
Craig has taken an extra step by championing a large Houston Anti-Yelp party at his 19th Street location (March 4, the event begins at noon). A multitude of Houston chefs, bars and local business owners have openly spoken out on Twitter and Facebook to support this effort. It could adversely affect their Yelp cred, but hey, that’s the idea.
With more than 50 million unique visitors every month, Yelp is spreading rapidly. As new listings and reviews are created by their users, Yelp’s juggernaut SEO capabilities are bolstered, granting their listings first blood in Google’s search results- usually above the restaurant’s own website. This way, the average user will see Yelp’s listing first, directly impacting the business owner who has likely expended resources to create an attractive, functional website that describes their business accurately.
In February 2009, East Bay Express reported that Yelp hadn’t broken even financially. Even so, in December 09, Jeremy Stoppleman turned down an offer from Google for more than a half billion dollars.
Two months ago, Yelp filed for a $100 million IPO, with reports that they will seek a valuation of between $1 billion and $2 billion. If Yelp is powerful now, just wait until they go public.
In the late 1950s, the screw worm fly (Cochliomyia hominivora) , infested and killed up to 15 percent of livestock in some areas of North, Central and South America. The fly lays its eggs in minor cuts and abrasions of the livestock, including the navels of newborn cattle. The larvae hatch and burrow into the flesh, resembling a screw (hence the name). It’s really disgusting.
The US was able to eradicate this vile parasite using the Sterile Insect Technique, developed by Raymond Bushland and Edward Knipling. Millions of male screw worm flies were reared in a large laboratory, sterilized with radiation, and then released into the wild. After mating with the sterilized males, the female flies were unable to mate again or lay eggs. Due to these advanced techniques of autocidal control, by the 1980’s, the screw worm fly was successfully eradicated.
Exactly like the screw worm fly, this Yelp monstrosity can be stopped with education and community efforts (or radioactive sterilization). Don’t let these troll-breeders proliferate and infect our society with evil, parasitic flesh-eating maggots.
Spread the word.