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BU Professor: More Fake Yelp Reviews With Smaller Businesses

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BOSTON (CBS) – Many of us go right to the online reviews when we want to try a new restaurant or service. We do this despite a suspicion that many of those write ups can be bogus.

Matt Flynn knows when he needs help for Yelp.

“It is very useful when I am visiting a city with friends and we are like, ‘Where do we go?’ We just look for one that has a high rating,” he said.

Other diners, like Matt Rodenhiser, worry about the legitimacy of some reviews.

“I like it in general, however, it seems like a lot of people use it for nefarious purposes, in writing fake reviews,” he explained.

Boston University Assistant Professor of Marketing Giorgos Zervas has been studying Yelp to look for trends when it comes to fake reviews.

Zervas found the worst offenders tend to be smaller restaurants. In one scenario, these establishments might post a fake positive review to neutralize some legitimate negative reviews.

“One bad review can actually have very negative consequences,” Zervas explained, which is why he believes many decide to do it.

On the flip side, Zervas also found fraudulent bad reviews placed with the intention of hurting a competitor.

“For negative reviews, the main driver is increased competition by nearby restaurants that serve similar food, maybe of the same price range, similar cuisine,” said Zervas.

Small restaurants depend more on online reviews because they don’t have big advertising budgets.

A study by the Harvard Business School found adding one star to a restaurant’s rating can mean an increase of 5-10 percent in revenues.

Nud Pod Thai near Boston University has a sign on their door encouraging customers to check them out on Yelp. A manager there told us that if a customer gives them a bad review, they try to fix that problem right away.

“One of the things we found in our research, because large chains don’t care as much about their online reputation, they also post fewer fake reviews,” said Zervas.

Zervas recommends Yelp users look for reviewers who have a large number of posts and many friends. He says that is often a clue that person is less likely to be linked to a particular restaurant.

“Despite some of the negative things we find in our work, the reviews are useful, but we shouldn’t always take them at face value,” concluded Zervas.

Approximately 25 percent of the reviews submitted to Yelp are never seen by the public because they are considered suspect by the site’s filters.

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