Services & Software

Ethics watch: Yelp's sponsorship program

Yelp has a program for businesses to buy into enhanced services. The majority of this program is standard fare, with the exception of enhanced business profiles, something that can give an edge to businesses willing to pay up.

Recently, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story about how Yelp had empowered local restaurant-goers and helped them improve several local eating establishments with their constructive reviews. One thing that caught my eye was the mention of Yelp's sponsorship program, where local businesses can pay for premier placement in Yelp's search results and "sponsor" favorable user reviews so they appear at the top of the list.

The sponsorship program has been around since early 2006, and many businesses have participated in it as a way to enhance their identity on the service. The sponsorship package includes an enhanced profile (slide shows and the aforementioned hand-picked review) and sponsored search results. As a Yelp user, I've seen both elements before and thought nothing of it. That all changed when I read about a disgruntled local business whose owner referred to the sponsorship program as "extortion," since it forces business owners to spend money to change how users experience their listing.

A random example of a restaurant involved in the sponsorship program. The sponsored review appears on top of others. CNET Networks

That business owner has a point. The profile enhancement element of the sponsorship program undermines the efficacy of Yelp's user-driven system. While businesses can't buy their way out of bad reviews, the fact that they can pay to put their sole five-star rating on top of a sea of bad reviews could be misleading to new users. "We're about promoting good businesses," explains Stephanie Ichinose, Yelp's director of public relations, "Overwhelmingly the majority of reviews you see are positive. People are trying to share...and we've taken this notion of word of mouth and put it in a positive light. What we can do on top of that is take businesses who are interested, and let them enhance it. It's not really any different from the Yellow Pages."

While Yelp's advertising site cautions business owners from reviewing their own establishments, there's nothing to stop a business from creating a dummy account, writing a few reviews, and then sponsoring one of their own--effectively rigging the system. Although doing something like that isn't as easy as it looks, "One of the things that's really hard to do is build a solid reputation with other yelpers," says Ichinose, "[faking] it would be very difficult."

Marketplace services like eBay have had premium paid features for years, but things change when a business reputation is on the line. Yelp's sponsorship program can be used to mask the community's opinion when community opinion is the whole point of Yelp. Though it's important for businesses to be able to respond to criticisms and compliments, the capability to effectively buy sponsorship on favorable content is ethically unsound, as it ends up misleading the Yelp user.

Yelp would not disclose how much its sponsorship packages cost beyond saying they were "affordable" to small businesses.

There's a fine line between advertising and content control. Yelp is treading in a gray area with its sponsorship packages. While paying for advertisements on a search results page is kosher, giving an edge on user reviews pages to businesses willing to pay is not. Yelp is a fantastic service that's steered me clear of some bad places, and it's helped me find new favorites. I don't want to see the site's authority diminished by a program that lets reviewed businesses manipulate their content.

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