Secrets Yelp doesn't want you to know

Yelp is a great resource for finding out about various restaurants, doctors, and other businesses. Anytime I travel, I use the Yelp app on my phone to find a good place to dine. And when I need to find a new doctor or repair person, I make sure they have a good rating. Frequently I find that my experience is exactly what I expected, with few exceptions. Also, I often write Yelp reviews myself, highlighting my favorite things about various establishments. But Yelp isn't quite the democracy it appears to be. They have their own ways of making sure their profits and reputation are protected. Here are some of the secrets Yelp doesn't want you to know about.

People leave fake reviews

It shouldn't be all that surprising that Yelp, like any site that has reviews, can be manipulated by people who want their business to have positive ratings. According to a 2015 study conducted by Harvard Business School, approximately 16 percent of all Yelp reviews have the potential to be fake. Most fake reviews are the result of business owners soliciting positive reviews from people on sites like Craigslist in exchange for money, but they can also be negative reviews from people who have a vendetta against the business or business owner.

Yelp, who does not condone fake reviews in any way, launched a Consumer Alerts program to catch offending businesses in the act. This is on top of their automated recognition software that weeds out fake reviews. But in spite of Yelp's best efforts, it's impossible to get rid of all fake reviews, so some will remain whether Yelp likes it or not.

They accept payments from businesses

Have you ever noticed that at the top of your Yelp search results there are listings with the word "ad" next to them? Those listings are advertisements from businesses who pay Yelp to feature their establishments at the top of relevant searches. So pay attention to what you're clicking on — advertised businesses may receive that priority slot over potentially better establishments. This shouldn't be surprising as Yelp is, after all, a publicly-traded company whose main goal is to make money. But this also might not be the only way Yelp makes money. Allegedly, Yelp employees have contacted businesses, offering to remove negative reviews for a fee for "advertising," though Yelp denies this is something they do. If this is a Yelp business practice, this is extremely concerning as it not only puts vulnerable businesses in a bad place, but also calls into question the integrity of the entire site. If this is true, it's obvious Yelp doesn't want you to know about it.

Not all reviews count

Yelp has done a good job ensuring that their site is user-friendly for reviewers. It's not hard to set up an account, find the desired establishment, and leave a review. However, Yelp doesn't post every single review they receive. In fact, 25 percent of reviews submitted to Yelp are not used. This is because they have been flagged by Yelp's review filter as not usable for a variety of reasons: multiple reviews from the same IP address, written by a competitor or biased in some way, written by disgruntled employees, etc. But it also catches reviews written by infrequent contributors, citing that they don't know enough about the person to trust their recommendation. So, these reviews are not factored into the business' overall star rating. Make note: if you want your reviews to count, make sure you write enough so that Yelp trusts your judgment.

Reviewers can be racist

Restaurant owners in Sacramento, California recently criticized Yelp for their handling of racist reviews left on their site. N'Gina and Ian Kavookjian, the owners of South Restaurant and an interracial couple, say that Yelp took about a week to remove a review that called her "field N-word" and referred to her husband as a "white slave owner." According to CBS Sacramento, Yelp says flagged reviews are assessed within 3-5 days. The Kavookjians were hoping Yelp would want to remove such an egregious review from their site faster than that, but that was not exactly the case.

And this is not the first time Yelpers have left racist reviews. According to a study by the Journal of Consumer Culture, Yelpers have a tendency to negatively characterize locations of establishments in black neighborhoods. So what does Yelp do about these reviews? They encourage you to flag any review that is inappropriate, which includes hate speech. With the amount of people who use Yelp, then, it's no surprise that policing these reviews takes time.

Bad reviews demand action

Reviews matter a lot — so much so that there are entire books available for business owners who struggle with negative reviews. A staggering 30 million business owners rely on Yelp and other review sites for growing and maintaining a healthy customer base — that's how influential Yelp is. And in spite of Yelp being a supposedly democratic site, what they don't tell you is that bad reviews can ruin someone's business whether the review is legit or not. This is especially true if the business is new and there aren't enough positive reviews to balance out a bad review. Even dropping one star can dissuade people away from an establishment. This is why some business owners set aside time every day to personally respond to negative reviews, listen to the feedback, and show reviewers that they have made changes because of the offending review. If businesses don't respond to negative reviews quickly and effectively, the consequences are bad for business.

They keep coming out on top

Yelp's been sued. Multiple times. People have accused them of fraudulently misleading consumers about the authenticity and quality of reviews. Businesses have accused them of extortive advertisement sales tactics, alleging that Yelp pressures them to pay for advertising. And there are multiple websites created by disgruntled people to band together against the review juggernaut. But so far, no matter how many times Yelp is sued, they prevail and emerge relatively unscathed from these legal battles. Even the Federal Trade Commission, who revealed in 2014 that they received 2,046 complaints against Yelp, took no action against them. Still, it is concerning that there have been so many complaints against Yelp, and potential future lawsuits are not altogether unlikely.

Reviewers have been sued

Leaving reviews, especially negative reviews, can have serious, real-world consequences. Consider the case of Advanced Chiropractic Center, a chiropractor in San Francisco. A patient named Christopher Norberg left a one-star review on the website after a billing dispute with Chiropractor Steven Biegel. In response, Biegel sued Norberg for defamation and libel; they eventually settled the lawsuit. But Norberg is not the only reviewer to be sued by a business over a Yelp review. More recently, Dr. Nima Dayani, a New York dentist, filed defamation lawsuits against "at least four" patients after they left negative reviews on his Yelp page. A pet-sitting company in Texas sued a couple for leaving a one-star review, and the case was dismissed. A moving company in Florida filed a defamation suit seeking damages in excess of $15,000 against a customer. Yelp, who strongly discourages businesses from suing reviewers, has taken action. They have adopted a practice of marking any businesses that engage in these practices, citing free speech as the main motivation.

Elite reviewers

Yelp has a designation for reviewers who they consider to be elite. The Yelp Elite Squad is comprised of reviewers that Yelp considered to be the best of the best. This is due to their high activity level, their quality reviews and photos, their detailed profile page, and knowledge of their city. To become a member, you can nominate yourself for consideration, or be nominated by someone else. If approved, you get a badge on your profile and other perks, such as invitations to Elite parties in your area. Still, what you might not know is that Elite reviews are not weighted any higher than reviews left by regular reviewers. You can toggle your search to include only Elite reviews, and Elite reviews are marked as such, but Elite reviews are factored into the star rating like anyone else's.