Are Yelp check-ins a conflict of interest?

The concept of “checking in” to a location using a web-based service is not new. Brightkite, Foursquare, and Gowalla have all been doing this for quite some time. But ever since Yelp has joined the fray, I can’t help but feel awkward about it.

We’ve now added the ability for yelpers to “Check-in” to businesses. Active users of this feature may receive “Regular” status of highly-frequented businesses.

This sounds great on the surface. Users who are already visiting restaurants and businesses simply indiciate that they’ve physically visited the location. It becomes fun and almost a game, much like Foursquare or Gowalla, to be one of the top patrons (Mayor or Top 10, respectively) or one of the most active users amongst your friends (Leaderboard).

But I feel this is where it gets sticky (emphasis mine):

Yelp is all about community – we have never put emphasis on any one voice or opinion. In line with that philosophy, we opted to highlight a group of people who frequent a business as opposed to just one person. “Regular” status can be achieved by frequent patronage – or checking in – of a business. This title will show up on a user’s profile, next to reviews and tips and on the business page in the iPhone app, as well as eventually on that business listing on The Regular with the most Check-ins will not only be featured on that business page, but get to wear the golden badge of honor. The moniker can also be lost if patronage wanes, so Regulars must visit a business often to keep it.

Sure, the check-ins and ‘Regular’ badges are, again, a fun “lightweight” way to interact with Yelp. But, those who do check-in regularly and provide favorable ratings seem to confuse the impartiality of a review. You’re not going to be a “Regular” at your 1-star venues are you? No, so this will become a form of rating inflating (as ‘Regulars’ are likely visiting their top-rated establishments).

I understand that someone who visits the coffee shop three times may have a more well-rounded perspective of the businesses service, food, and experience (compared to someone who had one awesome or one terrible experience). But, along the lines of Foursquare, which offers “Mayor Specials“, its arguable that frequent visitors (or Regulars) may be given preferred treatment. Perhaps not explicitly, but in the way that you start to get to know the guy behind the counter on your fourth visit. Or perhaps you really get to know the bartender… but maybe not the bar? What happens to your “Real Reviews” then, Yelp?

Sure, the individuals who are ‘Regulars’ are not a secret. They are clearly indicated and you can take their reviews with a grain of salt. And sure, before, these people would have received the same treatment and written the same reviews. But, now there is more incentive to visit regularly and write reviews.

So what about when Yelp starts mixing in the Sales & Special Offers variable? If I only visited a bar because I was getting a free drink, does that change my overall expectations and, ultimately, my review? Deals for “Regulars” is certainly something to stay away from.

I don’t know, maybe this is not a major concern to Yelp. But having chatted with Alex, I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering about this. There is arguably some potential for conflicts of interest in the form of preferable treatment and new incentive to visit regularly and write (impartial?) more reviews.