Weedmaps highlights difficulties facing consumer review websites

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By John Schroyer

Weedmaps has long been a popular online destination for cannabis consumers seeking quality retailers, but recent press coverage questioning the company’s credibility underscores the pitfalls facing online review websites.

A Los Angeles Times article last month suggested more than 60% of the consumer reviews appearing on Weedmaps were fake.

The article also raised a red flag about the source of those reviews, noting many originated from the same IP address. Weedmaps’ consumer reviews cover dispensaries and recreational marijuana retailers.

The Los Angeles Times story raised alarm bells within the MJ industry. It could haunt Weedmaps, and open the door to upstart rivals, some in the industry said.

Time will tell whether the bad press will leave a lasting scar on the California company. Amazon and Yelp have faced similar issues with consumer reviews.

At the very least, the Times article highlights the potential problems for an online cannabis review website such as Weedmaps – namely, the possibility of bogus reviews and the difficulty in countering them. Phony reviews also can cast a shadow on legitimate retailers.

“It’s definitely problematic … There’s not as many avenues to reach people, so Weedmaps, Leafly, those are where the consumers are,” said Aaron Varney, director of Dockside Cannabis, a Seattle retailer, referring to Weedmaps’ main competitor.

Varney said there’s meat to the possibility, raised in the Times story, that many retailers are paying consumers to post positive reviews or providing incentives, like discounted purchases.

Weedmaps’ response

Weedmaps executives, for their part, said they are taking steps to address the issues raised by the Times article, including the use of improved technology and the deployment of human eyeballs to monitor reviews on its website. The company also called the newspaper’s allegations overblown, adding the coverage hasn’t damped Weedmaps’ web traffic.

“We’re working on ways to improve the review system, and we’re spending a lot of time studying what works for sites like Yelp,” said Weedmaps Media Inc. President Chris Beals, who also is the company’s general counsel. “Part of the thing for us is we’re trying to come up with better tools to automate this.”

According to the Times, as many as 62% of the dispensary comments on Weedmaps could be fake, based on an investigation that found that 70% of reviews for a batch of 598 businesses originated from the same IP address.

Those 598 businesses were scattered nationwide, said the article’s author, Paresh Dave. A Weedmaps spokeswoman said the company has about 10,000 businesses listed on its website.

Within the retail cannabis sector, reaction to the Times’ story was mixed, with some executives up in arms and others defending Weedmaps.

“I believe that the article is completely true and accurate, and that’s one of the reasons we don’t advertise that much with Weedmaps,” said Zachary Lazarus, chief operating officer of A Green Alternative, a San Diego dispensary. “We believe that Weedmaps has always been manipulating and posting reviews multiple times with IP addresses from the same individuals.”

Questionable industry practices

The Times article, meanwhile, raised the possibility that marijuana retailers are paying consumers or dangling incentives for positive reviews.

Some Los Angeles dispensaries, for example, have garnered thousands of reviews on Weedmaps. Central Remedies, which comes up as one of the top search results for the city, had 3,928 reviews as of Wednesday.

Seattle-based Dockside Cannabis, by contrast, had 15 reviews for its two locations. The most reviewed retailer in Colorado – Pueblo West Organics – had 962 reviews. The vast majority of Colorado shops had one to a few hundred reviews.

“Everyone is encouraging and incentivizing reviews,” Varney of Dockside Cannabis said, noting his company has offered 10% off purchases in exchange for any online review – be it positive or negative.

It becomes a problem, Varney said, when retailers aim only for positive reviews.

Bruce Nassau, who owns the Colorado retail chain Tru Cannabis, worries about fake negative reviews from competitors, disgruntled employees, or unhappy customers.

“Someone could jam (Weedmaps) full of positives when it’s not appropriate. On the flip side, if someone decides they don’t like you for whatever reason, they could do a real smear job,” Nassau said. “It’s happened.”

But Sacramento dispensary CEO Kimberly Cargile, who runs A Therapeutic Alternative, said a lot of reviews coming from the same IP address doesn’t mean they’re fake or duplicated. She cited a farmer’s market she attended, where a vendor had a computer set up at a stall so customers could post online reviews.

“I think it’s a little overblown, because a lot of people, when they do reviews, will get together and do reviews together. Cannabis is a social thing. People will smoke together and do reviews together,” Cargile said. “I think Weedmaps is providing a valuable service to people.”

What’s being done

Weedmaps executives say they’re addressing the problem of duplicate reviews and retailers who may be gaming their system.

According to Beals, the company has a full-time staff of 10 devoted to monitoring reviews, and they’re on the lookout for suspicious posts, defamatory statements and possible fake reviews that may have been paid for by dispensaries.

“We don’t talk about this a lot, but part of the terms of service with every dispensary … is possible suspension for review padding,” Beals said. “Every month, there are dispensaries that are subject to (discipline).”

Beals also contended the Times “grossly inflated” the number of duplicate reviews.

He echoed Cargile’s sentiment, and noted the University of California college system has “less than 100 IP addresses that they use for about a million people.”

The fallout?

Two founders of Weedmaps’ main competitor, Leafly, even came to the company’s defense.

Scott Vickers and Brian Wansolich, who left Leafly last year to found a cannabis data company called Headset, agreed that tracking and purging potentially fake or duplicative reviews is difficult.

“It’s hard to speak to how they would fix that, but if you’re a review-based site you want to protect your reputation. This happened to Yelp a few years ago, but they bounced back, It took a while,” Vickers said, referring to when the popular online review site also came under fire for possible fake reviews.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if their reputation was tarnished a bit,” he said of Weedmaps, “but they could probably help that a bit if they can show that they can improve that to the public.”

Wansolich said: “It’s mostly about the optics for Weedmaps … It doesn’t look good.”

While Yelp faced legal complaints over its reviews, it’s unlikely Weedmaps will be held liable, California cannabis attorney Khurshid Khoja said.

“I think the reputational harm is a lot closer to them than any potential legal exposure,” Khoja said. “What they should do is bolster the efforts they have in place to review the reviews that are coming in, and make sure the same IP addresses aren’t a problem.”

John Schroyer can be reached at johns@mjbizdaily.com