How Yelp Can Help: Take Away Reviewers' Anonymity


I was talking to my friend Tushar, who runs a bakery in Hawaii, and he told me he was mad at Yelp. Join the club, I said. Small businesses everywhere have a love-hate relationship with Yelp. Tushar's beef was not unusual: His cupcake shop had just gotten some negative reviews. The reviewers, he was sure, were former employees who had been let go for cause. "The complaints in the reviews were too specific about our ingredients and sourcing to be anything but an inside job," he told me.

Tushar had been refusing entreaties to buy ads on the site from Yelp salespeople for some time, although he doubted there was any connection between the snipes and his choice not to advertise. But some businesses are taking part in class action lawsuits against Yelp, alleging that negative reviews (or removal of negative reviews) and sales calls are related: Those businesses that buy ads on Yelp, they suggest, can get their bad reviews removed, while those that don't can see positive reviews disappear.

Other regular complaints against Yelp come from merchants who say their establishments are being slammed by people who have never visited them, and who erroneously disparage menu items that in fact never appeared on their menus. For his part, Tushar was unhappy because there was no way he could be sure that his detractors weren't former employees due to Yelp's policy of reviewer anonymity, a bedrock of Yelp's business model that has long been a festering sore for merchants.

Rising Above the Lowest Common Denominator

Tushar's plight brought to mind a remark that TechCrunch columnist Sarah Lacy made at a recent conference in Hawaii on the future of the news business. Lacy was on a panel discussing, among other things, Peer News, the Hawaii-based citizen journalism start-up of Pierre Omidyar, who founded eBay. Omidyar's newly installed editor, John Temple, had announced to the panel that Peer News would not allow standard anonymous commenting. This was hard to believe. Torrents of comments are the lifeblood of news and content websites, and advertisers actually prefer to place spots on pages where lots of comments are flying back and forth. All that interaction shows user engagement, the theory goes.

But Temple and Omidyar believe that this anonymous engagement too often leads to mudslinging and a lowest common denominator form of discourse. Lacy's solution to the problem was simple and ingenious: Make all commenters at Peer News register via Facebook Connect. Doing so would ensure, to a great degree, that commenters use their real identities and could be held accountable for their comments. Lacy's solution would work even better for a site like Yelp, and would actually help make Yelp a better company.

Here's my logic. Anonymity is great for people with lots to lose. Whistle-blowers in corruption cases, tipsters about toxic waste emissions -- sure, they can and should be allowed to stay anonymous. But people bashing a bakery or a flower shop or a mechanic hardly need to worry about protecting their identities. Their lives are not at risk, and there are no legal grounds for such an establishment to sue a Yelp reviewer. After all, reviews of goods and services have been a staple of journalism for centuries. Sure, someone might get sued for defamation if their review was totally inappropriate, but Yelp already polices its pages for foul language and racism, the most likely triggers for such a suit.

Forcing people to reveal their true identities would also make any ulterior motives more transparent. Ex-husbands or former employees writing nasty missives could quickly be called out. As for the businesses, I'm certain they would love to know the identities of their critics -- not to go after them, but to ensure that their complaints are addressed during the next visit. Sure, there are some unfriendly small business owners out there, but in an era of copious choices, with so many national chains offering any sort of food, good or service, every small business owner I know is more acutely aware than ever of the old saw "The customer is always right." So why not give mom-and-pop a chance to make good?

Would Loss of Anonymity Induce Too Much Positivity?

Even with Facebook Connect as an identity verifier, a small number of fraudulent Yelp sign-ups would likely still happen. But it's much harder to create a fake Facebook account than a fake Twitter account, and it's even harder to sustain the fraud. The user of a fraudulent Facebook account would require a significant amount of activity in order to keep up appearances, including lots of friending, posting, and message-sending. It's much harder to lie about your identity in a social network where so many people know your name -- and where, if most of them don't, something clearly isn't quite right.

Would forcing Yelpers to sign in via Facebook Connect -- or some other transparent, hard-to-fake identification system -- reduce the volume of reviews? It might. But that would point to a general weakness in the business model. In society, people don't talk to each other the way they talk on Yelp because they know they wouldn't have any friends if they publicly said mean things about others on a regular basis. To be fair, the vast majority of reviews on Yelp are actually positive -- to the point that critics complain that Yelpers sugarcoat reality. Removing anonymity might make Yelp even more positive. But people are smart, and they would quickly realize that the true rating was in the ratio, not in the absolute. So if a three-star cafe becomes a three-and-a-half-star cafe, users would adapt and sort it out for themselves.

In terms of selling advertising, Yelp could then say with a clear conscience that it gives all merchants a chance to address their detractors. And any accusations that Yelp was behind a negative review could quickly be dispelled. What Yelp offers is a compelling value proposition. The reviews of the crowd clearly provide respected wisdom. But taking into account the needs of the little guys like my friend Tushar would make Yelp a friendlier, happier place for all -- and most importantly for Yelp, help it grow stronger as a company.