Nine years ago, online review site Yelp began bestowing “Elite” status upon certain reviewers, rewarding them — sometimes literally, with free swag — for their frequent write-ups and their dedication to the site. While it’s arguably a positive thing for Yelp to recognize certain users, it may be time for the site to reconsider how it runs the whole Elite program.
After some discussion in the Consumerist Fortress of Solitude, we arrived the following four ways in which Elite status is problematic.
1. It Confuses Quantity With Quality
Or at least we think it does. No one actually knows, as the selection process for becoming an Elite Yelper is shrouded in mystery, with the site listing the hard-to-quantify metrics of “Authenticity, Contribution, and Connection” as determining factors.
It might as well be the subject of a Dan Brown novel.
But one thing that appears to be common among Elites is a high volume of output.
One Elite spotlighted in the Chronicle piece has been averaging nearly one review per day over the course of the last eight years. He apparently has the cash to dine out four times a week, which allows him to keep up this volume.
We’re not going to slight this reviewer or say that he doesn’t deserve Elite status. In fact, we applaud his desire to share his opinions with Yelp users and wish we could afford to eat out as frequently.
Our concern — especially since Yelp refuses to explain the selection process in detail — is that looking at a user’s volume of reviews may exclude less-frequent Yelpers whose opinions are just as valid and may be just as thoughtful.
Elite status can also be taken away at the end of the year. Does that mean that the opinions of a former Elite are no longer as worth of consideration because she’s lost that Elite tag?
Additionally, dangling the Elite carrot before users and hinting that posting lots of reviews is key to earning the coveted status may lead some Yelpers to write reviews just for the sake of writing reviews. Not every meal at every restaurant — nor every visit to a dry cleaner, barber, hardware store, or nail salon — merits a write-up.
2. It Bestows Semi-Celebrity Status On Customers
In addition to the free swag that Yelp throws at Elite Yelpers to thank them, the site also convinces local businesses to host parties for Elites — some parties for just certain tiers of Elites.
“I’m finally now a Gold Elite, and certain parties are only for us,” one Elite tells the Chronicle. “It makes me feel like a VIP celebrity of San Francisco.”
But by rewarding Elites with gifts and parties — and threatening that Elite status can be taken away — Yelp is effectively using these reviewers as low-paid employees.
This is not like YouTube, where people with popular channels can make a living selling ads and sponsorship against their videos. These Yelpers are expected to keep writing at a fevered pace in exchange for status, which is affirmed by the aforementioned parties.
Yelpers are not supposed to write reviews based on what happens at these parties, but they are allowed to go back to these businesses as customers and write reviews.
While those subsequent reviews may be perfectly objective, the mere fact that Yelp are setting up its highest-profile reviewers to party with the very businesses they are supposed to review is enough to give Yelp critics — and there are plenty of them — reason to question the site’s reviews.
And this isn’t anything new. Several years ago, business-owners in Chicago accused Yelp of offering to rearrange user reviews on their Yelp pages if they sponsored one of these parties for Elites, though Yelp labeled the whole thing a misunderstanding.
3. It Creates Monsters, Real & Imaginary
Yelp rules discourage Elite users from leveraging their status to get better stuff. Yet there are reports of Elite Yelpers telling restaurants of their status in advance, and a few incidents of supposed Elites demanding better service or free food.
There was also that 2011 feeding frenzy at one of those Elite parties, where Yelp had to remind Elites to not be a-holes.
Surely not every person who tells a waiter “Be nice to me; I’m an Elite” — we wouldn’t be surprised if most of those cases are people who don’t even have Yelp profiles but just use the vague threat of a negative Elite review to see what they can get.
But it’s not like being an Elite comes with a badge or an ID card, so anyone can claim they have it when sitting down for a meal. And while an Elite could lose his status for making such a demand, it’s not like the restaurant will know his name, especially if someone else pays or he pays in cash.
The vast majority of Elite Yelpers are perfectly good people who would never pull such shenanigans, but the ease with which one can claim to be an Elite — and the risk faced by a restaurant for mistreating an Elite — is enough to merit a reconsideration of the status.