April 20, 2024

The Haggler: A Rave, a Pan, or Just a Fake?

IN this episode of the Haggler: gaming Yelp.

As a consumer review Web site, Yelp is so big and influential that it has given rise to a small, semi-underground group of entrepreneurs who, for a fee, will post a rave about your company. Others will post a negative review about your rivals.

Yes, this is very sneaky, and it’s a continuing problem for Yelp, which is locked in a “Spy vs. Spy”-style contest with fake reviewers. Let’s see how that contest is going by looking at, of all things, the field of dentistry.

“I was in need of teeth whitening and my friend referred me to Southland Dental,” begins a thumbs-up for a clinic in Sherman Oaks, Calif. Then there’s a description of the whitening procedure favored by Southland, and this closer: “Pain or no pain, it was very much worth it. I can’t stop staring at my bright smile in the mirror.”

This reads like a rave on Yelp, but it’s actually a sample from a help-wanted ad on another site — specifically, Mechanical Turk, a Web site owned by Amazon.com and a place where companies invite “Mechanical Turk workers” — thousands are registered, worldwide — to complete what could be described as microtasks. Each task pays a tiny sum. In the case of Southland Dental, workers were asked to write a fake, five-star review and post it to Southland’s Yelp page, for which they would earn 25 cents.

Obviously, Mechanical Turk work is not a path to quick riches. Panagiotis G. Ipeirotis, an associate professor of information, operations and management sciences at the Stern School of Business at New York University, who has studied the site, says his polling of Turk workers found that many were based in India and often earned $2 to $3 an hour.

The Southland ad was posted about a year and a half ago by Rony Mirzaians, marketing director at Softline Solutions, a Los Angeles company that provides a range of online services, including reputation management.

Last week, Mr. Mirzaians described the ad as “an experiment” he undertook to help a onetime client, a Southland dentist named Delaram Hanookai, though Mr. Mirzaians said the dentist did not know of or approve the ad. He said Dr. Hanookai  had hired him to do online reputation management — which for him mostly entailed building blogs stuffed with content related to her.

Dr. Hanookai says she hired Softline Solutions to maximize the visibility of Southland’s Web site and was appalled to learn that her dental clinic was used as part of  “an experiment.”

Did the ad work? Well, two five-star reviews about Southland are currently on Southland’s Yelp page, and one four-star review. Eight one-star reviews are also posted. In all, Southland has a two-star average.

Additionally, Yelp’s algorithm filtered out 22 reviews as fakes. The Haggler knows this because Yelp, rather brilliantly, allows users to see filtered reviews, which are on a linked page.

Nearly all the filtered Southland reviews are panting five-star commendations. One was written by an Eleanor L., who said she went in for a cleaning and 12 months later  reported her total satisfaction with the work, which included “12 gingival grafts; 10 veneers; two implants; a sinus lift; and … oh I can’t remember everything!”

Exactly how many of these five-star filtered reviews were paid for and how many were from real patients is hard to say. A Southland dentist, Michael Abaian, said in an occasionally testy interview that many of his patients had posted positive reviews about the clinic, only to have had them filtered.

“I have over 2,000 patients, and every other week one of them writes a positive review on Yelp and none of them sticks!” he said. “Businesses are at the mercy of Yelp.”

A media representative from Yelp, Vince Sollitto, would not discuss the company’s algorithm, he said, because that kind of information only encourages chicanery. Showing filtered reviews invites Yelp visitors to make up their own minds about which posts are real and fake, on the theory that no algorithm can unerringly parse the difference, he explained.

“Our job is to find and filter out fake reviews,” he said. “At the same time we let our audience know that this system isn’t perfect. Some legitimate content might get filtered and some illegitimate content might sneak through. We’re working hard at it. It’s a tough one.”

It might be getting tougher. Unlike Amazon, which strives to keep Mechanical Turk spam-free, a handful of sites let users boast freely of Yelp-gaming prowess.

Among them is Fiverr.com, where people advertise tasks they are willing to perform for five bucks. A recent ad posted by “Katmoney” — many job seekers use pseudonyms — offered to write convincing negative reviews posted to a Yelp page of your choosing.

Asked for an example, Katmoney sent this pan, which, strangely enough, took aim at a dental office: “I guess if you need a cavity filled you can go here. Otherwise, if you need more extensive work done I’d look elsewhere.”

That review shows up verbatim on the Yelp page of Hempstead Family Dental in Queens, in a review written by someone identified as Helena X.

Hempstead is the office of a single practitioner, Dr. Ahmed Elkady, an elderly immigrant from Egypt. He said he’d never heard of Yelp and couldn’t imagine who would hire anyone to post a fake negative review about his service.

“It’s slow here, always,” he said. “I’m seeing two patients today, both of whom are friends of mine.”

The Haggler asked Katmoney if he/she were Helena X., and, if so, why he/she had posted a fake review about Hempstead.

The answer is not printable in this newspaper.

E-mail: haggler@nytimes.com. Keep it brief and family-friendly, and go easy on the caps-lock key. Letters may be edited for clarity and length.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=3dbae6c431a54d7e3356a075eb9663fc

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