Do sites that pretend to publish negative as well as positive reviews distort the truth?  Here is an article about Yelp from Forbes magazine.

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Why Yelp Tosses Aside A Quarter Of All Reviews

Why do some negative assessments on Yelp seem to disappear? Can businesses with bad reviews on Yelp pay or persuade the online review site to erase unflattering opinions?

John Olsen in Schaumburg, Illinois thinks so. He was fired from his job for what he says was his questioning of his firm’s ethical practices. He thinks the world should be able to see his unvarnished assessment on review sites such as Yelp.

“I have also been monitoring Yelp, and I can testify that it appears to be fixed,” he said. “I know of several negative reviews that were posted about my former employer that were true.  However, they have been filtered out, so that their rating does not affect the total rating.”

“One of the reviews that has been filtered was written while I was working for the company,” Olsen said. “I was told by a manager that my former employer requested that Yelp do something with the negative rating.”

For years, Yelp has faced accusations and even legal fights over the issue of whether companies can pay their way out of negative reviews. It has firmly denied such allegations. “I want to make it 100 percent clear that there has never been any amount of money a business can pay Yelp to manipulate reviews,” said spokeswoman Hannah Cheesman.

In fact, a few years back, a court dismissed a case that alleged that Yelp had altered reviews for companies that advertised on the site.

It is true, however, that many reviews about a company or establishment are weeded out. “Yelp has an automated recommendation software in place which is engineered to highlight the most useful and reliable content to consumers who visit the site,” Cheesman says.

Reviews are excluded for a variety of reasons. For example, it monitors IP addresses to make sure several reviews are not coming from the same user. It also screens out what it sees as biased reviews, “written by a competitor, a disgruntled employee, or solicited by a business owner from friends, family members or favorite customers, and unhelpful rants or raves,” says Cheesman.

Another category subject to being discarded are reviews from novice or infrequent contributors to Yelp.

“The software can also weed out reviews written by less active users, which can be real reviews based on real experiences but we don’t know enough about the user to recommend their opinion to our community,” Cheesman said. “The reviews that are not currently recommended can still be viewed on a separate page but do not factor into a business’ overall star rating.”

A 2013 company blog explained the logic of such as system as analogous to how one might find good restaurants by word of mouth:

“You would probably place more weight on recommendations from people who have tried every place in town and from people whose tastes you share than recommendations from folks who rarely go out to eat, who seem like they might be too close to the owner to be unbiased, or whom you have just met and don’t know much about.”

Companies can also ask Yelp to consider removing certain reviews if they violate the site’s terms of service. Such terms set out that users must be at least 18 years old and cannot be “writing a fake or defamatory review, trading reviews with other businesses, or compensating someone or being compensated to write or remove a review.” Revealing confidential information is also barred.

Some sites and blogs have a policy of never removing negative reviews. Such a policy has the advantage of presenting unvarnished opinion, but allows those with an ax to grind to unfairly tar companies and individuals, often anonymously.

Creating a system of controls as Yelp does may weed out some legitimate reviews and criticisms. But openness about how they set those parameters allows each user to judge how much weight to place on the reviews. As the Yelp blog put it; “Yelp’s approach of recommending only the most useful and reliable reviews has served consumers pretty well to this point, since over 100 million of them visit our site each month.”

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