Can the Yelp algorithm be beaten?

13 minute read

Can the Yelp algorithm be beaten?

Let's get this out of the way first: Reputation X doesn't do fake reviews. Really. But the question of fake Yelp reviews does come up quite often - usually after a complaint from business owners that Yelp has been hiding some reviews (real ones) and not others. Some business owners even believe Yelp hides good reviews as a marketing tactic - for the record, we don't think that's true. 

Yelp does filter out real reviews all the time. It's understandably frustrating for business owners and marketing professionals who feel they are at the mercy of a heartless algorithm, because they are at the mercy of a heartless algorithm.

Yelps' algorithm is a big secret, but we've found some of the reasons both honest and less honest reviews are filtered out. We'll share them here.

Why Yelp filters some reviews

Difference between a blocked and accepted Yelp review

What kinds of accounts tend not to have their reviews hidden? Accounts that tend not to get blocked by the Yelp algorithm often, or at all, often include a few readily visible elements, such as:

  • The account has left at least a few reviews for various businesses. 
  • The account has uploaded images with at least some of their reviews
  • The account has at least one friend, preferably more (social proof). 
  • Reviews tend to more detailed, and longer. 
  • The IP address from which the review was left is not suspected of trying to game the system.

Based on this, new accounts that do not have these attributes have a higher chance of being censored because they're unproven and untrusted. 

Another example of an attribute we've noticed helps an account become more trusted - the Yelp mobile app. When a reviewer uses the Yelp mobile app their location is tracked. Yelp can tell if the reviewer has actually been to the business they are reviewing. Do we have objective proof? We've tested it informally and found that its true. But we can't be absolutely sure (Yelps' algorithm is secret). 

Related: Are Yelp reviews reliable?

We found that if the reviewer searched for a business using the Yelp app, then visited the business, and only then left a review, the review will be more trusted. Trusted reviews have a lower probability of being censored by Yelp.

There are a lot of companies claiming to leave bogus Yelp reviews for businesses. We know, Reputation X is often asked to fix their work. When companies try to fake reviews at scale, they often get caught. They get caught for a number of reasons, but in the end it's because their reviews follow a certain pattern. 

How fake Yelp reviewers get caught

At Reputation X we are constantly amazed at how clumsy these companies are. They don't seem to even try to create a natural-looking review experience. But when you take a look at the work it takes to create a false account that is believable you can see why it's not so easy.

Here's how it works: The average fake reviewer will create a Yelp account using a desktop computer or cloud-based workstation like Amazon Workspaces.  This is often necessary because the bogus review company isn't located in the target country. For example, they'll be based in India, but the restaurant they're creating reviews for is in the United States. They need to do this because someone living in India doesn't often fly to the US just for lunch.

They'll also neglect to develop the profile with a user image or much of any other information. They often leave only one review - and then call it a day. How much easier can they make it for Yelp to catch them?

Why do they do it this way? Because bots.

Fake reviews and automation

Most fake review companies use automation to create lots of bogus reviews. Automation = bots. If these companies wanted to make things natural they'd do it differently (some do). But setting up Yelp accounts to seem natural (but are not) is time consuming. This in the Yelp algorithms' favor because the cost of setting up hundreds or thousands of accounts would require resources in quantities that make large-scale Yelp fakery economically difficult. 

Setting up hundreds or thousands of accounts would require time and money in quantities that make large-scale Yelp fakery economically difficult.

To do it at scale they must use automation to at least some degree. Automation creates patterns Yelps' bot can often see. To illustrate how difficult it is to create natural-looking accounts see the next section. 

How to setup a fake Yelp profile

We don't suggest you do this, but we're using it to explain how things work in Yelp World. Yelp is looking for the types of patterns that fake reviewers use. Here's how people or companies using bogus accounts for Yelp could succeed - but in the end you'll see why it doesn't work at scale.

Someone setting up bogus Yelp accounts to leave reviews would need to do the following:

  1. Use a fresh IP address they've never used before. A Starbucks or better yet a personal home Wifi network. Why? Yelp tracks IP addresses. Multiple accounts from the same IP would be an obvious red flag.
  2. Get a Gmail or other new email address. A new email address would be needed because setting up multiple accounts using the same email address would be a dead giveaway. Why would the same email address have multiple accounts, right?
  3. Download the Yelp app on their mobile phone. Most people only have one cell phone, so this limits the creation of bulk Yelp reviews. It's why using a mobile phone is better than a desktop computer, a persons' mobile phone is more trusted - mobile device are highly trackable compared to desktop systems.
  4. Setup the new Yelp account on a mobile phone using the new email address from the Yelp app. 
  5. Perform a search using the mobile Yelp app for a random business in the geographic area of the eventual target review. But not the target business the bogus review will be intended for - yet. This first review is just to "season" the new account. Then, after finding the business using the Yelp app, it would be helpful to actually go to the business. Why go there? Yelp uses location tracking and can tell if someone has been to the business or not - at least, we're pretty sure they do. 
  6. Leave the review using the Yelp mobile app after visiting. Not a desktop computer - a mobile phone. 
  7. Take a photo of the front of the business, or the food, etc. and then upload it to the review to round - this adds additional authority to the review. This extra information is a step most spammers don't take. 
  8. Connect with a real friend or two on Yelp. This would increase the friends stat. Fake Yelp reviewers will sometimes link to "friends" that are actually just another false profile. 
  9. Wait a few days. Repeat steps 5 through 8 a small number of times over a few weeks leaving two, three, and four-star reviews. This step would increase the trust of the new account because fake Yelp accounts don't typically leave multiple real reviews first. 
  10. Only once the new Yelp account has been setup and seasoned could they leave the fake review they've been aiming for using the same steps above. At this point, weeks after setting up the account, they'd need to open the Yelp app, search for the business, go to the business, and then leave the fake review. It can be a five-star review but needs images, realistic review text, and no CAPS (Caps are another giveaway). 
  11. Bonus: Just for good measure, they'd need to do a few more reviews over the following weeks. Just stopping could be suspect. They'd also need to shut off the Yelp app (because it may be tracking) before going back to the target business. Again, Yelp is watching. 

The whole process for leaving a review could take two or three months. The point of all this would be to separate the new seasoned account from the patterns left by fake Yelp reviewers. 

The economics work against spammers

Imagine following the above steps on an industrial scale - it would be very difficult. A small business that only needed a dozen or so reviews could certainly use the above method successfully. A handful of willing friends or employees could do it. But to do it at scale would be challenging because of the steps involved.

Multiple factors contribute to Yelp hiding reviews

Yelps' algorithm is secret. Few of the red flags mentioned would be fatal on their own. But taken together they paint a picture. The information in this article has been cobbled together based on observation. The reason Yelp hides certain reviews is because the reviews match the pattern of fake reviews. It's not personal. It's just that they don't fit the pattern of honest reviews. 

Unnatural timing is also a factor

Another issue fake review companies have to work around is timing. Every business and industry has a certain cadence to reviews. If a business normally gets about one Yelp review per week, and then suddenly gets fifty reviews in a short period of time, it looks odd to the Yelp algorithm. 

Reviews and ratings that go from two stars to four in a few months seem odd. The Yelp algorithm tracks similar businesses looking for what is natural and what isn't. If similar businesses Yelp star-ratings follow a certain trend, but the target business' reviews fall outside the trend, it's a red flag.

But most business owners are impatient and fake review firms are happy to oblige. But this impatience compounds the problem the business owner wanted to solve in the first place.

How do you spot a Yelp review trend? Clicking on the Details button in a Yelp profile will show you the average Yelp rating for a business over time. The screenshot below shows a business with a slow improvement from about 3.5 stars to 4.5 stars over the period of a year. This looks (and is) natural. But a sharp increase over a period of time could be suspect. 

yelp-rating-details

What's a business to do?

We've discussed some of the ways Yelp catches fake reviews, and also hides honest reviews by mistake. The average business will have a certain number of Yelp reviews hidden.

What's a business to do? The best way to get good Yelp reviews is to get people who have found the business via Yelp to go back and leave a review - hopefully a good one. Customers who use Yelp often are the best ones to leave a review because they're more likely to be trusted. Their accounts are already seasoned real accounts. 

Even if a business were to simply ask its customers to leave reviews in exchange for something (Yelp doesn't like this) the new reviews could be suspect. They're new accounts after all. That's why existing Yelp users tend not to have their reviews flagged as often. 

How does a business know who came from Yelp?

The business can ask customers. There are ways to track Yelp attribution using tracking URLs and other means, but asking how a customer found a business is tried and true. Some restaurants will ask during the reservation process. A drop-down on a reservation form giving Yelp as an option enables a business to contact those specific customers and, after a good experience with the business, to leave a review.

Does Yelp like this, no. It's a violation of their terms of service. Interestingly,  a lot of business owners complain that they never signed a contract with Yelp agreeing to their terms of service - that Yelp just created the profiles from public records. 

A word about review solicitation

Asking for Yelp reviews is called review solicitation. It's not illegal (as far as we know) but there are FTC guidelines on it. But Yelp doesn't want the businesses they're messing with messing with their business model. We often hear business owners say something like "So, Yelp can mess with a businesses' model, but not vice versa?" Well, that's what Yelp prefers. 

Heavy-handed Yelp review solicitation, usually through mass automated means, can lead to a "consumer alert". A warning on the Yelp profile that says they suspect the business of violating Yelps policies. This is yet another reason not to use a Yelp manipulation service - they're the ones using heavy-handed tactics more likely to trigger a red flag. 

Don't do fake reviews. It's often easier to get real ones anyway. 

Like we said at the beginning of this article, Reputation X does not provide fake reviews - please don't ask - really. 

We do suggest using review management software to improve reviews though. One of the big benefits of review management software is that it catches unhappy people before they have a chance to leave a bad Yelp review. It gives them a place to vent in private and it connects them to someone who can make their experience with the business better. Not only does a good review platform help improve customer outcomes, it reduces the number of bad Yelp reviews a business receives. Over time good reviews overtake bad ones - naturally.

How does Yelp feel about review and ratings management?

Does Yelp approve of review management platforms? Generally, no. But to a business that is suffering due to bad Yelp reviews the owner rarely seems to care. In their eyes Yelp is endangering their business. Still, we urge businesses not to buy fake Yelp reviews.

Yelp creates business profiles even though many businesses don't want them. Sadly, there is no way to realistically get Yelp to delete an unwanted profile. For this reason we think Yelp is in the wrong

Still, there are better ways to improve Yelp reviews than using a fake Yelp review service. One restauranteur even solicits one-star Yelp reviews because they hate Yelp so much. The owner claimed that Yelp manipulates reviews to force business owners to buy advertising.

Soliciting one-star reviews may be a little over the top for most businesses, but we feel the desperation of small businesses nonetheless. 

Good luck :-)

FAQs

Why does Yelp filter some reviews?

Yelp filters some reviews that its algorithm deems fake or of very low quality.

How are fake Yelp reviewers caught?

Fake reviewers will create an account using a non-local IP address. They'll also neglect to develop the profile with a user image or other information where a real person would. They often leave only one review or have few to no Yelp friends.

What factors contribute to Yelp hiding reviews?

The reason Yelp hides certain reviews is because the reviews match the pattern of fake reviews. Unnatural timing is also a factor.

How does a business know who came from Yelp?

The business can ask customers. There are ways to track Yelp attribution using tracking URLs and other means, but asking how a customer found a business is tried and true. Some restaurants will ask during the reservation process.

What is review solicitation?

Asking for Yelp reviews is called review solicitation. It's not illegal (as far as we know) but there are FTC guidelines on it.