18 Nov 2008

A Social Media Fall From Grace

There’s a perception both in real life and on the Internet that once you’ve reached a certain level of success, you’re untouchable.  That at some point you become “better” than the average bear, that you have more leeway with your actions, and that people will forgive you faster. I’d like to point out that this idea is not always true. In fact, it’s wrong more often than it is right. Meet Mark Cuban.

For awhile, Yelp was seen as a social media darling. They were constantly being touted as one of the top sites successfully using user-generated content and social media to build a community.  Every time there was a conference session on search and social media, Yelp was mentioned. Use Yelp as your guide. Yelp is untouchable. Yelp does it right.

But the press is changing and something doesn’t smell right.

In October 2007, Yelp found itself in the middle a social media uproar when restaurant owners began banning “yelpers” from eating in their establishments because they were afraid of bad reviews.  There  were reports that a Yelp user was threatened (both physically and financially) when she posted a bad review on the site and that reviews would disappear for seemingly no reason. Soon after that, Yelp met RipOffReport and some dangerous allegations. And now the allegations are back as we hear Yelp is actively engaging in a “marketing blitz” (read: telemarketing scam) that tries to get business owners to shell out $300 to have positive reviews written in order to push negative reviews “below the fold”. And if the thought of THAT wasn’t slimey enough, it seems the review switcheroo doesn’t even take place. Yelp just gets the cash.  Allegedly.

Methinks our social media darling needs a shower.

Don’t get me wrong, there could be  legitimate reasons for all of this.

  • It’s not Yelp’s fault if sensitive business owners are making threats against its users, right? Well, unless they’re not doing anything to try and stop it.
  • It could be that reviews haven’t disappeared but have “dropped off” because of how the Yelp algorithm works, right? Sure.
  • Maybe no Yelp employee has ever been paid to write a review. Totally plausible.
  • It’s also possible that telemarketers are just misunderstanding how Yelps sponsored ad policy for advertisers works and inaccurately describing it to people.

It could be that Yelp has done nothing wrong. Unfortunately for Yelp, it doesn’t matter.

Yelp has a big problem. They have a problem because they’ve fallen from grace and people won’t let them get away with it. They’ve gone from that cool hangout with a great community to now having a reputation as housing over-aggressive, and possibly unscrupulous, marketers. They went from a source of trusted information, to a place whose authenticity you have to question. And the minute you make that jump to where people don’t trust what you’re selling and start giving you the stink eye, you’re dead in the water. Especially if your entire site and business model is based on the quality of your information.

Yelp may think they’re “trusted” enough that they don’t need to respond to these allegations, but they’re not. They need to turn this around. They need to be absolutely transparent about how its advertising program works for businesses. Most people know they allow advertisers to “promote” one favorable review to the top of the pile and then mark it as Sponsored. Is that what the telemarketers were selling? Or is there something else going on here?

Yelp needs to explain why certain reviews drop off at certain periods. Is it an algorithm, are reviews matched to users, is there a personalization method in place?  They need to put the spotlight on themselves and start publicly answering the questions everyone’s looking to them to answer.  If they don’t, people are going to start believing they have something to hide and that pristine image they once had is going to break away faster than they’ll be able to support.

There’s plenty of room for Yelp to turn this around, but they have to start acting. They have to embrace their role in social media and start joining back in the conversation. You can’t hide behind the integrity you used to be associated with when everyone is starting to poke holes in your story.

C’mon, Yelp, open up and take back your reputation. If Britney can do it, so can you!