The Ethics in Paying for Reviews

Recently the Internet began buzzing about Google discussions on buying for $500 million.

I can only assume that either Yelp decided not to sell, or Google discovered how became the top online consumer review site for local businesses.

Paying Reviewers to Review.

Recently Dick Larkin, a well-known and knowledgeable yellow pages industry insider, commented on Yelp’s tactics of buying reviews on his blog:


Why does Google really want Yelp?

Yelp Slumber Party

Google is reportedly buying for around half a billion dollars.  Heck, it makes me wanna yelp!

Yelp is a consumer review site that sells advertising to local businesses.

In a perfect world, the honesty of reviews adds credibility to each business, and advertising simply provides for greater exposure and content.

But it’s not a perfect world, and advertisers prefer not being bad mouthed where they spend their money.

Yelp has 8 million reviews on its site, which I suppose would make it one of the most popular review sites online.

When Yelp was expanding into San Diego, I noticed that a few people were posting massive amounts of business reviews.  So I called one of the most prolific posters and asked her if she was being paid by Yelp.

Indeed she was, and her job was to post information on businesses that she encountered.

That seemed like a good way to get exposure for local businesses, and since I was running an Internet marketing company, I decided to hire people to post Yelp reviews for my clients.

Imagine glowing reviews, “Dude, my sewer rooter guy is totally awesome!”

I ran an ad on Craigslist seeking people who would post reviews of local businesses on Yelp.  I was probably a little too forthcoming about the details in the ad, and I received an email from Craig Newmark (the “Craig” in Craigslist).

Craig Newmark

He said that my ad sounded shady and he wanted to know if I would really pay people to post honest, positive reviews of local businesses.

I informed him that I was doing exactly what the founders of Yelp were doing.

Craig contacted the owners of Yelp, and after a few more emails, he removed my ad.

Yelp was clearly much smarter than me, hence the half a billion Google’s tucking into Yelp’s G-string.

But it makes me question sites that post reviews about businesses that they then solicit advertising dollars from.

It creates a pretty big conflict of interest.

BBB Logo

Of course, the grandaddy of them all is the Better Business Bureau, who run the closest thing to a protection racket with hush money that you’ll ever find.

Some businesses have questioned the authenticity of an “authority” that rakes in dollars from businesses who try to clear their good name.

I’m certain that the Google advertising machine will make the Yelp acquisition into a gold mine of revenue.

But I really wonder how well Google’s “Do no evil” slogan syncs with the way local review sites actually operate.

I’d love to hear your comments.  Post them at: Post your opinion here:


So back to my soapbox:

Realistically, what do you expect from companies? Consumers leave reviews when they have a bad experience more than a good one.  I feel as though there is going to be no means of avoiding the reprocussions of the bathroom wall of America: The World Wide Web. When you start paying people to add data or manipulate the information for profit, the integrity of the site is at question. Questionable activities and sites do not last for a longtime or build a large subscription base once people find out what is going on behind the scenes.  Even the BBB is not 100% authentic with reviews. Of course folks like me have known for years it is about as governmental as “Federal Express” (or the Federal Reserve for that matter.) What are the solutions to maintaining integrity and ethics in online reviews? How long until the publishers manipulate reviews to keep protect and keep from losing clients? What happens when a big advertising spender offers horrible service? Will people who work for online directory publishers, such as’s site by Idearc Media, influence consumer perception by removing negative reviews or sales agents adding fake positive reviews? If you folks don’t think this is going to be an issue going forward, you are sadly mistaken!

What is a possible solution to this issue?

A few years back Idearc attempted to leverage content from Sue Goldstein of  The Underground Shopper on the cover of local Dallas-Ft Worth area yellow pages directories.  It didn’t make a lot of sense to me at the time since folks seldom use the yellow pages to research products and reviews/ratings information.

Sue Goldstein  Now it makes great sense to reach out for local experts and create a paid “secret shopper” program. Now, I would first recommend that said “media company” that leverages a great idea, like partnering with local bargain hunters and experts such as Sue Goldstein, on the right vertical. Social media is the vertical for ratings and reviews. Internet directories can become great rating and review sites. The issue is: How Do You Encourage People To Leave Reviews? How about a day of shopping with Sue paid for by the publisher to members who are subscribed to the companies print and online products? How about subscription based rewards programs? It would be a great idea to leverage the expertise and reviews of a bargain hunter like Sue Goldstein? How many unknown Sue Goldsteins exist? I am sure there are a few of them all over the country.

I also think it would be wise to pay for reviews from experts such as SuperHandyman Al Carrell.  This is the kind of marketing that the print industries can take offline and leverage online (or vice versa.)  I am less than pleased with the attempt from the major phone book publishers to adapt to a content strategy for local search. Unlike vertical web properties (sites like, Ebay,,,, etc) the yellow pages internet brands do very little to leverage important consumer content other than a list. If you are looking for tips and information, all they are attempting to do is API tweets on Twitter with very little focus. I don’t understand what they are attempting to accomplish.

My suggestion to print publishers: Take your ideas that won’t work in print and see if they stick on the web. Some of the ideas: like leveraging well-known local experts, can really work well in the social media world wide web.

Time for the YP Industry to start leveraging relationships with area experts. Create a new form of content that folks want to subscribe to. What about a column from the areas expert in the phone book with a barcode scanner app on a mobile smartphone such as the Droid or iPhone? Time for the industry to get creative.

If the best you can come up with is a copied gimmick…… you deserve your fate:

The Future of Yellow Pages

2 Responses to The Ethics in Paying for Reviews

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