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Friday, July 04, 2008

New Online Phenomenon: The Review Farm

Those well versed in the search game can easily chronicle how the act of social linking gave way to the link economy. When Google gave quality links value, the game was all about how to get them. Can't get favorable external mentions? Swap links. Google discounting reciprocal linking? Join up in a large, elaborate interlinking scheme that passes PageRank to members. Oh, but you knew Google would get wise to that too, didn't you? And that they would introduce Other Ranking Factors and spam tests to try to get the real good stuff to bubble back up to the top again?

Now, word's out that Yelp management won't take such schemes lying down when it comes to local business owners banding together to write positive reviews in order to boost each others' reputations and rankings in category listings. The business owners protest; Yelp sticks to its guns. Is it Orwellian? Consumer friendly? Or should anyone get their shorts in a knot about a few glowing reviews of the local pull-taffy-and-bubble-tea emporium? I mean, who doesn't like taffy?

Well, maybe it's a bit of both. Google's practices and philosophy are very similar. To paraphrase: "We reserve the right to torch your rankings if we suspect any shenanigans. Sorry."

It all boils down to the fact that neither Google nor Yelp ratings are literally "correct." Both are open to interpretation and game-playing. However, in a more comprehensive sense, businesses can develop strong reputations by being visible on these properties, and they can do so without cheating. For now, the publishers' attempt to stem cheating will be tinged with arbitrariness. Some howls of protest might be legit. Longer term, these sites will allow for deeper probing into claims: peers will be able to find peers and get a better sense of what's real.

Make no mistake about it, though: relevancy rankings, and business ratings and reviews, are serious business. Consumers depend on them. Businesses with strong ratings often deserve them. It would be a huge shame if the Googles and Yelps of the world were forced to give into scaremongering about their imperfect technology; perhaps left to plaster For Entertainment Value Only across their pages, like some cheap carnival psychic.

In case you missed it: National Taffy Day

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