Study: 16 Percent of Yelp Reviews May Be Fakes

yelp reviews may be fake

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Yelp reviews and consumer reviews on various other sites are supposed to be a more transparent guide to the quality of various goods and services.

But a recent study by researchers from Harvard Business School and Boston University involving reviews of restaurants in the Boston area indicates otherwise. The data presented by researchers suggests that as many as 16 percent of Yelp reviews may be fake.

What’s more, the authors say the incentives created by review sites may actually be encouraging the practice.

In “Fake It Till You Make It: Reputation, Competition, and Yelp Review Fraud”, researchers Michael Luca of Harvard Business School and Georgios Zervas of Boston University explain (PDF):

“As crowdsourced information becomes increasingly prevalent, so do incentives for businesses to game the system. Our findings suggest that unethical decision making is a function of incentives, rather than of unethical businesses. Organizations are more likely to game the system when they are facing increased competition and when they have poor or less established reputations.”

Newer Businesses More Tempted to Fake Yelp Reviews

Newer businesses or those with few reviews are more tempted to fake it, the study concludes. Researchers mention a trend for businesses to have larger numbers of positive reviews early in their life-cycle as evidence of this. They also conclude that businesses that recently received a bad review may be more tempted to cheat.

While Yelp does filter reviews identified as suspicious using a proprietary algorithm, site visitors can still view them by solving a “captcha” puzzle, the study explains.

Still, penalties can be harsh for businesses caught faking reviews on Yelp or other sites.

For example, businesses recently caught in “Operation Clean Turf” will face a combined $350,000 in fines for fake reviews. The investigation by New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s office into allegedly fake Yelp reviews began last year.

Yelp also recently filed suit against a San Diego law firm claiming the company filed fake Yelp reviews.

Surveillance Photo via Shutterstock


Joshua Sophy Joshua Sophy is the Editor for Small Business Trends and the Head of Content Partnerships. A journalist with 20 years of experience in traditional and online media, he is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. He founded his own local newspaper, the Pottsville Free Press, covering his hometown.

17 Reactions
  1. Wow – that’s an eye opener. 16 percent is a no-joke figure and this fact makes me think – and re-think – about how trusted a review site can be.

    User generated reviews will always be an issue of fake vs. real, IMO.

  2. This is such a sad story for small business owners who are putting out great products and services-and who just want to do the right things.

    The playing field needs to be level, and fake reviews UN-level it, big time.

    Shame on them.

    The Franchise King®

  3. This doesn’t really surprise me, as people are going to want good reviews. It’s just sad that people would sink that low just to get a good review. Plus it makes the whole point of a review site invalid.

    • I’m on the same boat. This is inevitable especially since you’re dealing with an online platform. While they may try their best to prevent it. There will always be a few that will be able to fool the system.

  4. The sad fake is they do not list the legit reviews. We have 16 5 star reviews that have been filtered by Yelp. They will list a lesser review with no problem. If you own a business, do yourself a favor and check you filtered reviews. You will be very upset.

  5. I hate to say it, but it doesn’t surprise me. It is a shame, but like some others said, it is an online platform and it would be impossible to police.

    I think consumers will catch on and not trust these review sites as much. I certainly don’t, but I am in the biz so I know what goes on. Just a matter of time until consumers catch on.

  6. I don’t put much faith in those review sites as many of them are bought from other sites or review farms. I make up my own mind and use my better judgement when making any purchase.

  7. I have a couple of clients who have issues with Yelp. One has a small business and Yelp has ‘filtered’ out nine positive reviews. The second is also a restaurant and seems to think that one of their competitors is posting bad reviews. Is it possible? I’m sure that it is. I’m sure that a few family members would be more then happy to either bolster up their nephews business or knock down the competition. So like Ed Pierce says above, make up your mind and use better judgement when purchasing.

  8. I’m in agreement with Mike and Rick. Our company has 11 reviews on Yelp. 2 bad reviews and 9 legit outstanding reviews. Guess which ones are posted and which ones are “filtered”. If you guessed that the 2 bad are posted,you would be correct. It’s really is a shame when a review website gets to decide a company’s reputation.