The Yelp Conspiracy: How a Group of Businesses Conspired to Get Better Yelp Ratings

Yelp recently busted what it calls a "review-swapping ring," in which partners in a business network posted top ratings and glowingly positive reviews of each other's services.

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Yelp Inc. signage hangs outside of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., on Friday, March 2, 2012

Add this to the list of reasons you shouldn’t trust online reviews: Yelp recently busted what it calls a “review-swapping ring,” in which partners in a business network posted top ratings and glowingly positive reviews of each other’s services.

User reviews of products and services carry tremendous weight with consumers conducting research online. It’s become customary to scope out a restaurant’s ratings on Yelp before making a reservation and to hunt for hotels using TripAdvisor. Many consumers consider it foolish to skip these steps, with the idea that you ignore the comments of previous customers at your own peril.

Good reviews and top ratings are important to businesses because they push establishments to the top not only of review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, but to the top of online search results as well. These results can make or break a business, which is good and bad for user-review sites: Good because consumers seek out the ratings; bad because there is obvious incentive for businesses to attempt to game the system and boost ratings by planting fake (or at least questionable) reviews.

(MORE: 9 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Trust Online Reviews)

Yelp, the granddaddy of review sites, goes to great length to root out less-than-trustworthy reviews. It employs an aggressive review filter that incorporates various mysterious factors algorithmically to try to keep questionable reviews from affecting ratings. At times, the filter winds up flagging reviews that are perfectly legit, frustrating the honest consumers posting them.

Yelp also tells businesses not to ask for reviews and bans members of networking groups from reviewing fellow networking business members. But that didn’t stop a group of business owners in California from asking each other to rate each other’s services—all with five stars, of course.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Yelp recently unearthed what it refers to as a “review-swapping ring” among members of the South Bay BNI, a networking group that includes attorneys, insurance agencies, real estate agents and even a D.J.:

“This was a sophisticated effort to bolster the reputation of members of this business networking group through five-star reviews,” said David Lee, Yelp’s user operations manager. “Reviews that have a bias lead to a poor consumer experience.”

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Starting in February, the business association agreed to hold a contest in which members would score points and prizes for pumping up each other’s ratings and reviews on Yelp. A few months later, the effort expanded, with businesses actively soliciting Yelp reviews via Facebook and LinkedIn. The net result is that, for example, a small-claims paralegal service in Los Angeles quickly boasted 15 five-star reviews, all from fellow members of the networking group.

The business owners involved claim that all of the reviews they received and gave were legitimate, even though no one revealed their network affiliation in reviews, and the group’s president admitted in an email that “we were all part of a networking organization.”

Yelp caught on to the networking group’s actions, and last month dozens of comments and five-star ratings affiliated with the group instantly disappeared.

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Yelp would point to the incident as an example in which its filtering and investigative services worked to perfection. The dubious comments and reviews were outed, and in light of how the controversy played out consumers should have just as much, if not more, confidence in its ratings system.

Then again, consumers might also wonder, rightly so: What other conspiracies, rings, pay-off systems, informal agreements, and questionable ratings of all other sorts are out there and have yet to be discovered—and deleted—by Yelp and other review sites?

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.