Are Yelp reviews reliable?

12 minute read

Are Yelp reviews reliable?

The success or failure of your business can hinge on its online reviews. But more and more people are asking themselves if online reviews are even trustworthy. 

From choosing the best hotels and restaurants in town to consulting the right doctors, most people rely on online reviews. Reviews are quickly replacing friend recommendations to become the main way we vet businesses against one another. In fact, we rely on online reviews so much that a single bad review can completely ruin the online reputation of a company.

One study suggests that 91% of people trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations—as long as the reviews are authentic. But about 20% of reviews are fake. So can you really trust Yelp business reviews?

People see star-ratings first

Yelp itself states that 88% of people are "more likely to look past a negative review if they see that the business has responded and appropriately addressed the issue." But that statistic is based on people actually reading reviews. Most people look at the star-rating first. If it's not high enough they may not even read the reviews.

Yelp has been suspected of allowing businesses to pay for more prominent placement in search results. This would be a problem for good reason – this practice can destroy the credibility of the reviews we read.

This makes it even harder for honest reviews to rank over various types of review manipulation. And it also makes it difficult to constantly monitor all the new reviews for a business.

Yelp algorithm vs. motivated humans

The fact is, businesses with higher star-ratings and better reviews get more customers. While Yelp may not always be a trustworthy source, they do make an attempt. Yelp tries to improve its algorithm to weed out fake reviews, but it's tough. It's a lot easier to create fake reviews than it is to create an algorithm to detect them. 

If a business is found to have faked reviews Yelp puts a nasty message on the business' Yelp page. Many business owners just shrug this off. After all, they're trying to feed their families and in their eyes Yelp is just getting in the way. 

Let's remember that businesses don't ask to have Yelp pages created. And for those businesses that don't want to be listed on Yelp, getting a page deleted is almost impossible. What's a business to do?

The cost of creating fake reviews is generally far less than the cost of finding waiters who never, ever, have a bad day. So if the cost of creating fake reviews is less than the cost of perfection, and the worst thing that may happen is a nasty message on a Yelp page the business doesn't even want, many business owners ask the question "why not?".

It turns out that staying in business is a great motivator for trying to game Yelp.

Common types of review manipulation 

This blog will share some of the most common types of review manipulation, and what you can look out for to become a more informed buyer. It's time to stop trusting reviews at face value and take a more critical stance when researching businesses online.

4 most common types of review manipulation:

How many reviews are fake?

Have you ever read a glowing review about a product online and thought that it sounded too good to be true? Maybe it is.

Recent research suggests that reviews found on social networks and review sites like Yelp may not be as reliable as people think. According to this study, roughly 20% of restaurant reviews (positive and negative) are fake.

91% of people trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations - but about 20% of reviews are fake

Fake reviews have created problems for both honest businesses and consumers, and it's easy to see why. Each additional one-star Yelp rating causes an increase in business revenue as high as 9 percent. Since reviews directly impact revenue, this creates motivation for businesses to improve their Yelp page. Some businesses take extreme and/or dishonest measures to do so. 

Here are a few honest ways businesses work to improve their online reviews (more on the dishonest ways later).


  • Link to your Yelp page on your website, email signature, or social media
  • Remind people that you’re on Yelp when they enter your store with some signage (think "people love us on Yelp" window clings)
  • Share positive reviews on social media
  • Quickly respond to reviews (both positive and negative)

Are fake negative reviews a problem?

Not all fake reviews are positive. In another study, researchers found that businesses often leave fake negative reviews to undermine their competitors and usurp potential customers.

This is a common practice for restaurants and hotels who attempt to make their properties look better by ruining the star-ratings of their competitors. For example, let's say there is a major chain hotel surrounded by boutique hotels. The smaller hotels may write negative reviews about the chain in order to entice travelers to consider their properties instead.


Buying and selling online reviews is big business

It’s hard to find neutral reviews on the web when so many people write fake reviews for a living. There are entire companies based in India, the Philippines, Bangladesh and elsewhere that have large teams of fake Yelp reviewers working tirelessly day and night to make bad businesses look good and vice versa. As you can imagine, Yelp is a prime target. With so many fake reviews out there, people often question if Yelp reviews are even reliable. 

A simple Google search will give you dozens of services that can be hired to create fake reviews on any site or social network you want. And since many people trust online reviews, brands regularly hire such services to increase their positive reviews and polish their reputations for prospective customers.

There are many ways that brands do this, and the list continues to grow as new techniques are developed. We've rounded up the four most common types of review manipulation. 

Companies use fake reviews to damage rivals

As mentioned above in the boutique hotel scenario, a scarier aspect of fake reviews is that many brands hire companies to start propaganda campaigns against their rivals and damage their rivals’ online reputations. There are even firms that specialize in negative PR.

Every year thousands of small and medium-sized businesses suffer because of fake negative reviews on sites like Amazon, Yelp, and Facebook. For example, a UK-based chef was fired for leaving fake reviews on TripAdvisor in an attempt to tarnish the reputations of competing restaurants.

Consumers use reviews to get discounts

Businesses know that one bad review can turn away hundreds of potential customers. This is why businesses make every effort to please dissatisfied customers who leave negative reviews.

Unfortunately, many consumers take unfair advantage of this and use negative reviews as a blackmailing tool to get special deals and discounts.

Such reviews are misleading and tend to blow small things out of proportion, yet brands often have to give in to this “blackmail” to avoid greater damage to their reputations.

Many companies have in-house reviewers

It’s a poorly kept secret that many companies have in-house teams hired specifically to write favorable online reviews and counter rivals with negative reviews. Online, these employees appear to be different users from different locations. Many brands manage anonymous social media accounts, and even websites, to publish positive news about themselves and to damage their competitors with negative propaganda. These types of accounts can be easily purchased from places like BlackHatWorld for a little as one dollar per profile.

Internet trolls defame brands for fun

Trolling is a phenomenon that emerged with the growth of social media. Internet trolls are people who intentionally start quarrels and controversy by posting inflammatory comments on social media posts.

Most of the time, their objective is to get the attention of other people following the post. But trolling has also become a major problem for brands. Internet trolls routinely post fake reviews and negative comments about brands for fun.

Even some of the biggest brands in the world, like Target, have been victims of trolling on social media. But they have the budget to counter such attacks with positive content. Most small to medium-sized business, however, don’t have that luxury.

How to tell when a review is fake?

Luckily, consumers are getting better at spotting fake reviews. Although it can sometimes be difficult to tell when a review is real or fake, there are some telltale signs that the review you are reading may not be legit.

Here are a few of the most common signs:

  • Extreme star ratings (1 or 5) 
  • Vague language, loaded with first-person pronouns and more verbs than nouns. Remember that it's easier to write a vague story-based review than an accurate description of a product you've never used, or a place you've never visited.
  • Timestamps and locations that don't make sense (this is a good indicator for restaurants or other local businesses)
  • Users that use nicknames instead of their real names

Online review sites are struggling to stop fake reviews

Perhaps the scariest thing about all this is that even the biggest social media platforms and review sites have failed to effectively counter fake reviews.

A few years ago, Amazon sued more than 1,000 fake reviewers selling their services on Fiverr. But that didn’t stop people from finding other ways to manipulate reviews.

Businesses sometimes sue individuals for leaving negative reviews. A roofing company recently sued a couple for leaving one-star reviews. And a Tennessee woman was sued for a negative review of doctor on Yelp. So it does happen. 

Review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor have taken several measures to counter fake reviews and trolls including automatic detection systems and manual moderation teams. Some sites only allow verified users to leave reviews, and this has worked well for review platforms that can easily verify real users.

One of the ways in which Yelp combats fake reviews is with its "not recommended" section. Yelp uses automated software to filter out reviews that it believes are fake, biased, or otherwise unhelpful. 

What you can do to protect your business from fake reviews

It can seem like there is little control that you have over your business's online reviews. But the truth is that there are plenty of proactive measures you can take to improve the quality of reviews for your business.

It all starts with monitoring. If you are monitoring all of the most popular review sites, you will have a strong understanding of what is being said about you online, and will be able to react quickly if you ever become a target of fake reviewers. 

Here are a few tips for managing your online reviews:

  • Encourage positive reviews by linking to your Yelp page from your website, email signature, and social media profiles. If you have a physical storefront, put up a sign or window cling reminding people to leave a review if they loved your service. 
  • Respond to both positive and negative reviews. This is important to show that you are in tune with what your customers are saying and that you will work to fix any issues or problems that may arise. Remember to always keep a level head when responding to negative reviews. 
  • Flag reviews that violate Yelp or Google's content guidelines. 

Even with the efforts of review sites and your own detective skills, it can still be tough to spot fake reviews. This harms not only the consumer, but the business as well if it is suffering from an onslaught of fake negative reviews. If you're currently dealing with this problem, it's still possible to turn your reputation around. If you need help with that, feel free to contact us today. 

Yelp review FAQs

What is review manipulation? 

Review manipulation is the attempt to create false, misleading, or inauthentic feedback about products or services. The most common types of review manipulation are companies using fake reviews to damage rivals, consumers using reviews to get discounts, in-house reviewers, and internet trolls defaming brands for fun.

How can you tell when a review is fake?

Here are a few of the most common signs of a fake review. Extreme star ratings. Vague language, loaded with first-person pronouns and more verbs than nouns. Timestamps and locations that don't make sense (this is a good indicator for restaurants or other local businesses). Users that use nicknames instead of their real names.

How can you improve negative reviews?

Here are  few ways to legitimately improve negative reviews. Link to your Yelp page on your website, email signature, or social media. Remind people that you’re on Yelp when they enter your store with some signage (think people love us on Yelp window clings). Share positive reviews on social media. Quickly respond to reviews (both positive and negative).