Report: Yell Employees ‘Wrote Thousands of Reviews’

The Sunday Times in the UK writes that Yell employees wrote 6,700 reviews for the site (TrustedPlaces) in a month for an internal contest. According to secondary reports:

Staff at the firm’s Reading HQ were encouraged to write reviews for the company’s website Trusted Places – a site boasting user-generated recommendations of places to visit – by the offer of prizes such as an iPad and Amazon vouchers, according to the Sunday Times.

The article and information are presented as something of an expose or scandal. However I don’t necessarily agree. If the reviews are real and authentic they’re not illegitimate in my mind. But it’s a close call.

Sokratis Papafloratos, who runs social media for Yell was quoted in the article saying, “We view our people as ambassadors, and it’s essential that they use and understand our products and services.”

I agree. The question is the contest part. If Yelp employees were discovered to have written such a large number of reviews in an orchestrated way it would be critically received.

What do you think?

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18 Responses to “Report: Yell Employees ‘Wrote Thousands of Reviews’”

  1. Ryan says at

    This is very close to call. If the employees were encouraged to write reviews (even with the lure of prizes), but were writing honest reviews (positive, neutral, and negative) about businesses they’ve actually used and not coached or given a predetermined list in any way, then I think this is okay.

    But if it comes out that the employees were instructed or guided in any way for their reviews and the authenticity of the website would be tarnished.

  2. Greg Sterling says at

    I agree it goes to the intent of the reviewers and the sincerity of the effort. But the contest part is the thing that casts doubt on that. 

  3. David Mihm says at

    Is this any different than how Citysearch, I mean CityGrid, began its review base? Just on a larger scale, without as much pay for each individual review?

  4. Greg Sterling says at

    Not sure about the history there. Yelp seeds markets by paying freelancers. Is that any different? 

    I think it’s a gray area. I think if the Yell employees wrote real reviews in the end it’s OK. 

  5. David Mihm says at

    In case it wasn’t clear from my comment, I don’t see why this (or how Citysearch got started) would be a big deal or “critically received.” It’s not like the business owners were extorting them to leave positive reviews; why would a Yell employee’s opinion not be as valid as the guy off the street’s?

  6. Greg Sterling says at

    I don’t think their individual reviews are illegitimate unless they were simply perfunctory to rack up numbers to get prizes. I agree that any individual has a right to write reviews and shouldn’t be disqualified. 

    Perhaps this ultimately is more a perception problem than anything else. 

  7. Tweets that mention Report: Yell Employees ‘Wrote Thousands of Reviews’ -- Topsy.com says at

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Greg Sterling, McSizzleBizzle and Peter Diedrich, uj. uj said: Upps…if the work as customer, OK…otherwise? RT @gsterling Report: Yell Employees ‘Wrote Thousands of Reviews’ http://bit.ly/fMdONz [...]

  8. john wilkes says at

    It is public preception that matters not what industry folks think. Tying reviews to winning a prize can cast doubt in the avg.consumer’s mind. It would for me. Time will tell if this bites them or not.

  9. Mike says at

    If the employees posted reviews using their own real names, and in fact had used the businesses reviewed in each instance, then probably just the problem mentioned above of perception, and how that perception maps to a brand that you are marketing as ‘trusted’. But another factor maybe – public companies are generally expected to have a higher level of accountability, as the actions affect a broader range of stakeholders, compared to a scrappy startup where the financial risk is concentrated with the founders/investors/employees.

  10. Jeremy says at

    Greg, in my mind this is clearly not fair play:

    Of course, these employees were PAID to write those reviews.
    Of course, Yell did not want to leave negative reviews to small businesses.

    There’s a bias, and they just lost credibility!

  11. Sokratis says at

    Nothing sinister going on here. It was a simple competition and we provided some very clear guidance that we wanted genuine reviews of people’s own experiences. Fairly standard practice stuff. Absolutely no credibility lost for Yell in my book. 
    Sokratis 
    (I co-founded trustedplaces and head this area in Yell)

  12. Greg Sterling says at

    Sokratis:

    Thanks for your comments. But why the contest rather than just asking people to do reviews? 

  13. VInce Burns says at

    I’m guessing Yell did reviews of companies that were clients.

    More reviews = more web traffic = more sales = Happy Yell customer.

    If the reviews came with a disclaimer that stated the reviews were written by Yell employees(competing in a contest) for Yell Clients, it would allow users to make an honest assessment as to the value of the review.

  14. Duping by the crowd vs. building community among neighbors at Ghost of Midnight says at

    [...] Greg Sterling blogged today (in part)… The Sunday Times in the UK writes that Yell employees wrote 6,700 reviews for the site (TrustedPlaces) in a month for an internal contest. According to secondary reports: Staff at the firm’s Reading HQ were encouraged to write reviews for the company’s website Trusted Places – a site boasting user-generated recommendations of places to visit – by the offer of prizes such as an iPad and Amazon vouchers, according to the Sunday Times. The article and information are presented as something of an expose or scandal. However I don’t necessarily agree. If the reviews are real and authentic they’re not illegitimate in my mind. But it’s a close call… [...]

  15. Robin says at

    @Vince: I would be surprised if Yell specified only to do reviews of companies that were clients.

    I agree with Sokratis and David: this is pretty standard practice for seeding new areas and new sites. I’m sure that many many other directories have done it. You put it in a competitive format because game mechanics are cheap and elegant ways of driving behaviour — both in employees and other users. The goal is to generate a greater volume of new reviews and get employees used to writing reviews, so that they can become ambassadors of the approach.

    What’s funny is that I’ll bet that TrustedPlaces, Yelp and Qype have all done this in the past. I’ll bet that all of them similarly have incentivised their employees. But I’ll also bet that Sunday Times would have seen no conflict of interest with these sites, whilst it would if the company was Yell, or any other IYP. What is the difference that makes the difference: that they offer advertising or that they have a sales force?

  16. Sokratis says at

    Hi Greg,

    It was just a a fun way to launch the site and adding an incentive usually helps spread a internal comms message more easily. We had just launched Reviews within Yell and wanted to get as much usage out of the product. Getting content is always great, but also massively QAing what we launched very fast was a key reason. The competition run for just two weeks. 
    Our growth plans in this area do not depend on our employee base. We’re not that huge a company :-)

    Robin,
    Thanks for the comment. You’re absolutely right – we invited staff to act as any non-Yell affiliated person would act. I.e. no influence whatsoever on who and how to review. 
    All startups in this space (including trustedplaces) have been way more aggressive with the incentives they offer, some even hiring people specifically to write reviews. 

  17. AJ Kohn says at

    I think the question is whether they are displayed that way. By that I mean, if one employee reviewed 234 venues, are they all shown under that employee’s account?

    As long as that’s the case, then the employees are just acting as superusers. I’m not particularly perturbed by that. Heck, even if the reviews aren’t *that* good – well, a lot of reviews aren’t very good!

    But if they put those reviews under a number of accounts, then *that* would be something more sinister, making it seem like there was activity from more people than there really were. 

  18. Josh Walker says at

    The review model is dated. Once check-ins can gain traction, people will only trust comments and feedback from people who can demonstrate they’ve tried a service or been to a location. Credit card and daily deal sites will also add ways to verify reviews. Open Table, Priceline, and Trip Advisor do a really good job. This seeding content problem is going to go away. Sites without legitimate users and community will be exposed. 

  19. Greg Sterling says at

    Josh:

    I agree especially for mobile users. I also think Like (see Bing + FB) will take over in many cases. Reviews will still be important in some contexts however.

    Likes are more clearly “endorsements” than check-ins so aggregating check-ins is a bit more problematic except to show raw popularity or visits.

  20. birdseye says at

    I struggle with the adopted norm that is OK for individuals with a clear vested interested to submit reviews onto a website. These employees have an obvious interest in promoting clients businesses, this is natural and it is naive to suggest anything less.

    I remember the competitions on the side of Kellogs Cornflakes when I was a kid. It was clearly stated on the box that employees of Kellogs could not enter these competitions…. that situation was clear an transparent.

    There is nothing clear and transparent about 6,700 business reviews being written by employees of Yell… The main article and every comment above is riddled with ‘if’ statements, that’s enough to tell me it’s not transparent.

  21. Neighborhood Sites Can Awaken Community Involvement « The Levisa Lazer says at

    [...] Sometimes even the 1 percent of the content that appears to be user-generated is actually supplied by paid contributors, such as the recent case with Yell. [...]

  22. Neighborhood Sites Can Awaken Community Involvement at Ghost of Midnight says at

    [...] Sometimes even the 1 percent of the content that appears to be user-generated is actually supplied by paid contributors, such as the recent case with Yell. [...]

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