The owner of Ottawa’s The Joy of Gluten Free bakery is not your typical small business owner. A former headhunter for the IT industry, Susan Phipps has been online since 1994. By the time she started converting a clothing store into a full commercial kitchen with walk-in fridges and freezers in 2012, she was already intimately familiar with search engines and SEO.

In 2015, The Joy of Gluten Free won the Top Choice Award for top bakery in Ottawa. As part of the criteria, a business required a 75 per cent or higher social rating. “Immediately our rating fell on Yelp to as low as 1.2 out of 5,” Phipps recalls. It is a classic case of information warfare techniques applied to social media.

In theory, reviews on Yelp and Google Maps should help consumers make informed decisions if they are actually based on a statistical sampling of real customers. But, as elsewhere on the Internet, there is little accountability. On Yelp, for example, it is trivial to create fake accounts and leave reviews for any business.

According to the company’s website, “Yelp uses automated software to recommend the most helpful and reliable reviews for the Yelp community among the millions we get. The software looks at dozens of different signals, including various measures of quality, reliability, and activity on Yelp. The process has nothing to do with whether a business advertises on Yelp or not.”

I created a Yelp account and posted a review, and felt it fair to acknowledge knowing the owner in the review. Within a few days, my positive review was moved to the “not currently recommended” section, resulting in it being hidden from view and not factored into the business’ overall star rating.

Upon further research on Yelp, I found that they may remove reviews if, “the reviewer has an apparent conflict of interest ”, including if they appear to be a competitor or former employee, affiliated with the business, receiving payment or other incentives for the review, or promoting the business or a competitor. On the surface, that makes sense, but in practice it does nothing to prevent abuse.

The root cause of this issue is Yelp’s business model. While their stated purposes is “to connect people with great local businesses,” their real business is selling advertising. Reviews provide Yelp with free fresh content, crowdsourced business listings, and attempt to  create an online community.

According to Phipps, these issues can have a significant impact on small businesses. “Essentially these sites usurp top positioning on searches for businesses that are review sensitive,” she wrote, “They generate so many hits and pay for that top positioning. I find that these reviews contribute to a crowd mentality or a consensus of acceptable treatment towards the business. For example, if one person writes your stuff is expensive, generally the next two reviews will say exactly the same thing, without quantifying the amount. For instance, one review site has my product listed as $$$ (expensive) and a competitor with higher prices listed as $$. Ironically, the same week we got three 1/5 reviews, we were also listed in ‘cheap eats’ in Ottawa Life magazine as having exceptionally inexpensive and high-quality products.”

In addition to the obvious impact on search rankings, Phipps says that entrepreneurs are impacted personally. “You feel defeated. There are always areas of your business that are stronger than others. Generally, you are overworked, underpaid, and tired. These reviews last for the lifetime of your business, and beyond. Any insecurities you may have as a person – well there it is on the table for the world literally to see, fairly or unfairly, right or wrong.” She also points out that most people who leave negative reviews do not first attempt to address the issue with the business.

As any business owner knows, some customers are just unreasonable. Phipps related how at one point she was working 7 days a week, and scheduled a Sunday off. A customer who insisted that was the only day she could come to the store left a negative review without trying a single product. Other customers have bought a box of cupcakes, ignored advice to put them in a sealed container, and complained when they went stale sitting uncovered. To help address that issue, Phipps sourced more expensive packaging.

The question facing business owners is how to respond to unfair and vindictive reviews. According to Phipps, the usual marketing response of offering free product doesn’t help. “Only in one case in the past 5 years has anyone ever taken me up on it. They know well what they are doing and they certainly will not face you afterwards – even for free product.”

The larger question is how long businesses such as Yelp will remain viable. If consumers realize how easily ratings are manipulated, and understand that the company is really in the advertising business, the corresponding decrease in their Internet traffic may have a negative impact on advertising revenue. Review sites such as Yelp and others could respond with more innovative ways to capture real customer experiences. Or they might find themselves irrelevant in a few years.

More generally, perhaps consumers will tire of inaccurate and obviously biased reviews, and the pendulum will swing back toward traditional, balanced, and accountable reviews. Until this happens, we will continue to have information warfare on social media.

Yelp did not respond to an email inquiry by the time of publication.