Yelp’s CEO Responds to Extortion Charges with Not One, But Two Straw-Man Arguments

Jeremy Stoppelman, on the Yelp company blog:

We'll be the first to admit that, by conventional standards, Yelp can seem weird. We're different than other review sites and that can throw people off. The main basis for confusion: Yelp has an automated system in place that helps to maintain the legitimate quality of content. This automated system often removes reviews from business pages that people don't want removed.

What does that even mean?

It means through an automated software algorithm, we filter reviews that might be shills or malicious spam. Because this is a difficult task, sometimes that results in legitimate reviews being suppressed from business pages.

It's worth repeating: Legitimate content, i.e. real reviews, will sometimes not appear on a business page.

It's counter-intuitive, right? You'd think we would want as much content on Yelp as possible, so why wouldn't we show all of it?

That's a very good question, and it speaks to the core of Yelp's problem: they just aren't transparent enough, and they think that's a good thing.

Stoppelman's engaging in an interesting bit of doublethink here. He's saying their filtering algorithm sometimes turns up false positives, apparently often enough for people to mistake the automated filtering for salespeople manually deleting good reviews. As a software developer, this leads me to believe the algorithm is not stable, and can't be trusted.

But Stoppelman is saying that because the process is automated, it should and must be trusted. It's just that people have trouble understanding how "nuanced" it is, and people who see a conspiracy are just personifying Yelp's inscrutable filtering system.

And as if one straw man weren't enough, he piles on one (or two) more in attributing the lawsuits to "the Orly Taitz of internet lawyers," implying that this would be just a casual disagreement between Yelp and business owners, except for greedy charlatans who want attention and a quick buck.

Here's my take: if you're right, you shouldn't need to work this hard to prove it. I don't think Stoppelman is lying; if he and some former salespeople all say it's not possible to manually suppress reviews, that's probably true. But they're making excuses for their methodology instead of just apologizing and trying to work through this crisis. They don't look guilty, but they definitely don't look innocent.