There’s a new warning splashed across the Yelp pages for all 200-plus locations of embattled burger franchise Burgerim: “Consumer Alert,” it reads. “We caught someone offering up cash, discounts, gift certificates, or other incentives in exchange for reviews about this business.” And they’ve got the receipts: Yelp even links to the proof against Burgerim, as is their delightfully shady policy. In this case, it’s a form letter from the chain’s corporate office to would-be influencers that offers one complimentary combo meal in exchange for Instagram posts and five-star Yelp reviews.
Yelp has been cracking down on paid reviews with particular emphasis since 2016, publicizing those crackdowns under a “Consumer Alert” push. (A visit to any Burgerim page now comes with a pop-up explanation from Yelp reading: “We wanted you to know because buying reviews not only hurts consumers, but also honest businesses who play by the rules.”) Recently, the company rolled out similar warnings of “Suspicious Review Activity” for businesses with many reviews made via the same IP address — i.e. possibly by the same person or group of people — or generated through a “review ring,” a group of people or fake accounts that post positive reviews for money. Yelp says it recently closed more than 400 accounts associated with one such review ring, caught by a third-party agency it hired to solicit paid reviews across the web.
More Yelp alerts, which include highlighting restaurants with poor health scores, don’t typically endear the tech company to businesses on its platform — which, to be real, have never much cared for Yelp. Still, Yelp is increasingly making its case to customers, framing itself as a sort of online consumer watchdog, the Elizabeth Warren of review sites. And its platform, though problematic, is still a powerful one: 100 million users look at Yelp every month on desktop, and 73 million on mobile.
But among bigger global competitors like TripAdvisor (490 million monthly users) — on which a third of reviews were fake according to a 2018 Times of London investigation — Yelp, a company with $942 million in revenue last year, sees itself as a trustworthy underdog. Vis-a-vis Google, with which Yelp has been locked in a bitter feud for more than a decade, Yelp casts itself as David taking on Goliath. Since Google can bury Yelp in its search results and prioritize its own ratings and reviews, Yelp says it must work harder to establish trust, developing features like consumer alerts.
“[Yelp] needs to find ways to get consumer traffic,” Yelp’s VP of communications Vince Sollitto tells Eater. “To earn it, we do everything we can, because we’ve always prioritized trust.”
Yes, everything it can, including “review ring” sting operations. But in the case of Burgerim, it’s not necessarily customers, but would-be franchise operators, that could use a warning. This month, Senator Dianne Feinstein encouraged the FTC to investigate Burgerim for its allegedly “false or misleading sales tactics” to seduce franchisees, and now both Maryland and Washington have revoked the chain’s right to sell franchises. Now that’s a serious consumer alert that has nothing to do with David M. in Chicago taking a free burger in exchange for a five-star rave.
• Burgerim Loses Franchise Registration in More States [Restaurant Business]
• Yelp cracks down on ‘review rings’ as Google continues to see widespread mapspam [Search Engine Land]