Social Web

Yelp Goes Unfiltered. Let The Arguments Begin

Users of Yelp, the customer-review site, can now read reviews that the site's automatic filtering system had previously hidden from view. The change comes after a number of business owners complained and filed lawsuits alleging they were treated unfairly.

The system, now live on Yelp's site, adds an option to see filtered reviews at the bottom of a business' ratings page. For instance, a search on Seed in Venice, Calif., included this notation: "1 to 40 of 72 (17 Filtered)". Anyone who clicks on "17 Filtered" — and enters a captcha code — then sees the reviews Yelp's filtering algorithm chose to hide.

A screengrab of Yelp's site, with a popup window asking to see filtered reviews.

A screengrab of Yelp's site, with a popup window asking the reader if they'd like to see reviews that had been filtered by Yelp's software. Screengrab/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Screengrab/NPR

The change might help put an end to the complaints that Yelp favored businesses who purchased advertising on the site. Of course, they could also prompt more questions — if, for instance, a user looking at the full results doesn't see why a particular review was removed.

In a conference call about the changes, Stoppelman didn't go into great detail about what makes Yelp's filtering software pull some reviews, other than to say the system uses data that's not visible to the site's audience — presumably a reference to the rater's ISP address and related behavior, like if they've posted anywhere else on the site or are targeting a single firm.

Along with the unfiltered ratings option, Yelp is also discontinuing its "Favorite Review" feature, part of its ad package that Stoppelman said was often misunderstood. In its place, businesses can now post videos to the site.

As we reported earlier, Stoppelman has denied any underhanded behavior by the company, insisting the reviews disappeared because of an effort to filter bogus reviews — a positive one written by an employee, for instance, or a negative one from a competitor.

Still, some owners of restaurants and other business said they saw their ratings on Yelp change after refusing an offer to buy advertising on the site — in some cases, within 24 hours of being contacted by an ad rep.

And the tech-savvy owners of a helicopter pilot training school also noticed losing positive reviews, something they blamed on the filter system's algorithm. Soon after, they were contacted by Yelp's advertising department.

In Tuesday's call, Stoppelman was asked about the lawsuits — and the difficulty of providing absolutely unbiased and trustworthy reviews.

Stoppleman said that he wasn't sure what effect the changes would have on the lawsuits. The company's motivation, he said, was to prove that the advertising and ratings on the site were not linked.

"At least everyone can see that it's a level playing field," he said.

Our earlier All Tech post about Yelp drew comments from several users who noticed irregularities in how the site treated reviews. It will be interesting to see if the new changes, meant to increase transparency and trust, instead spark debates over why certain reviews are filtered out of sight.

According to its internal numbers, Yelp had 31 million visitors in March.

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