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Friday, March 19, 2010

Yelp, Extortion, Spam, and ... Oh, Just Stop It!

Yelp has run into its share of problems, with a third lawsuit emerging, alleging that their advertising sales practices are akin to "extortion."

On top of this, the tone of comments about the company -- at least in some circles -- has turned nasty.

Yelp is popular, so they've got a big target on their forehead. Businesses (as we saw many years ago with Google) suddenly wake up to the opportunity; some see it as a place to spam; the publisher-slash-algorithm upholds editorial standards in a realm where, for whatever reasons, certain businesses feel a sense of entitlement. Is it because the business model is new? Businesses may have grumbled about yellow paged directories over the years, but there aren't lawsuits accusing listings salespeople of extortion rackets.

Remember: Google went through the same thing in the days following algorithmic changes that took aim at SEO practices like link farming. The little guys who were "put out of business" by Google's "unfair" algorithm changes made for compelling copy in wire stories, but a strong sense emerged in the wake of that: no one owes you a living built around free traffic, and building your whole business model around a free high Google ranking doesn't earn you much sympathy from anyone.

Plus, it was a zero-sum game to an extent. The companies who were featured more prominently in the algorithmic listings certainly didn't complain when the other guys dropped. Everyone can't be first. As a result, there will always be disappointment in ranked listings, just as there is after each Olympic medal event.

Of course, if there is something to spam, aggressive (gray-to-black-hat) SEO's will try to figure this out. This group wants to know how to "spam the Yelp review filter" which really means raising the trust level of fake reviewers so automated flags aren't as likely to send reviews to editorial. That's similar to the tactical SEO mentality of "aging sites and domains" for future use as authority sites for link spam. This line of thinking is clearly of the variety of "you have eyes, but can you really see"? A local business *should not want* to astroturf Yelp with fake reviews. Think the logic through. To really move the needle, you'll need more than one fake account or to get a bunch of long term fake reviewers in your employ. This is the type of thing that eventually comes out in the wash, somehow, as sure as Tiger sexting about threesomes. And when it does, your business credibility is shot.

Because such dangerous lunatics are out there providing advice to businesses, review sites take a hard line, and disallow content and ratings as they see fit if the reviewers don't seem trustworthy. (Don't you wish Twitter took a more aggressive stance on banning fake accounts?) This gives the appearance to some businesses that their "great reviews" are being removed maliciously. I submit, it's part and parcel of weeding out spam. (See above, where someone openly writes about "how to spam that".)

In the end, the goal is pretty straightforward: editorial content that helps users find things, make better choices, and lead better lives. It also has a social component, though, so these review-sites-slash-social networks need to be a bit careful about how aggressive they are in banning people per se. Maybe some people trust other people and that's their business. Behind the scenes, for the purposes of the algorithm, the trustworthiness or publishability of certain reviews can be discounted or downgraded, but the process needs to be as transparent as feasible. (This analogy with Google might help: it can't actually "ban sites" from existence (just its index) or "tell sites not to link" or "tell you not to trust a site"... but it can quietly remove the "link juice" from links that its algorithms feel are fake or part of a scheme. That's their prerogative. Don't like it, ask another search engine for answers.)

Classified advertising (which is separate from content) has been a business model forever. No one in publishing set out to create an extortion racket, and if they did, the marketplace is free to question the validity and unbiased nature of the content, and to move onto a more reliable source. (Compare the "canned" lists of "recommended" restaurants that you might get in some publications, or some cab drivers. Better?) So it will always be a messy, fractured sector with give and take and back and forth going on.

To be sure, there is a certain amount of Schadenfreude mixed up in the Yelp case. By seeming to look down their noses (in concert with their investors and various hangers-on) at various other companies in the space that weren't quite as hip or youthful or well-funded (InsiderPages, Judy's Book, CitySearch), and by being photographed having insider, exclusive good times with their insider, exclusive circles of friends, Yelp gave fuel to the "haters" who would love to see them fail. Comments floating around the current news bring all the nastiness out of the woodwork.

But surely it's the haters who should look inside themselves for answers, rather than fabricating wrongdoing and posting snarky comments that say little more than that the sales team are "kids" with an "attitude". Suddenly, it is a crime to be young, employed, and in classified listings sales?

Businesses considering investing time and money in venues like Yelp should consider them dispassionately as media investments and avenues for reputation management. The former is similar to an Old Media classified ad buy; the latter, Web 2.0 and digital reputation awareness. Both are simply realities of our connected world.

Possibly, similar to when I long ago caught an AltaVista sales rep doing it, there have been isolated incidents of salespeople tying editorial to ad buys, or implying a connection. The question is, does Yelp have a clear policy on this? And, what can you prove in isolated cases of businesses' positive reviews being suppressed (which is a normal practice to prevent "astroturfing" or self-reviewing)? Going forward, businesses who continue to use terms like "extortion" are going to come off as resentful and out of touch. Because: virtually no form of media that sells advertising has been immune from some claim that an ad buy is a bribe to get yourself better treated in the regular content (newspapers, TV, magazines, trade shows, and you name it). You want Yelp to fail because it sells advertising? Then you'll take on the entire media sales industry worldwide. That dog won't hunt.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Friday, August 17, 2007

Yet Another Keyword Lawsuit

(via SEL, via Eric Goldman) American Airlines brings a suit against Google for allowing competitors to use terms like "American Airlines" to trigger their own ads. The question is: will the existing law and precedent suddenly change because this time, it's American Airlines? Doubtful if you ask me.

The upcoming SES panel (next Tuesday) on copyrights and trademarks should be a good one, as always.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




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