Companies Accuse Yelp Of Review Extortion, Yelp Says No Way

Some San Francisco companies have accused the review website Yelp of manipulating reviews, either in exchange for buying advertising or as punishment for refusing. Yelp flat out denies the charges. They say that the posting and removal of reviews are determined solely by an algorithm and that their sales staff has no access to the reviews. But in this detailed article published this week in the East Bay Express, several restaurants cite phone calls and emails that they say indicates otherwise.

Here are a couple of eyebrow-raising anecdotes from the article:

Former Yelp advertiser Mary Seaton said she took the company up on its offer to move her negative reviews if she advertised. Seaton, the owner of Sofa Outlet in San Mateo, paid $350 a month for six months about a year ago. During that time, Seaton said, her negative reviews were removed and old positive reviews showed up. “There was one negative review but they pulled it down and then it came off,” she said. After her contract was up, Seaton said a negative review appeared, which contained lies. When she asked her sales rep, Katie, about it, she responded, “We don’t get involved with that. We’re not mediators.” Seaton said at that point she chose not to renew her ad contract.

One San Francisco merchant said a Yelp sales rep rearranged the reviews on his restaurant’s page to entice him into advertising. Greg Quinn, general manager of Anabelle’s Bar and Bistro in San Francisco (168 reviews, 3.5-average star rating), said that around January 2007, a Yelp sales rep was trying to get him to advertise. Quinn said he subsequently noticed that some of his negative reviews had moved further down on the page. “It was clearly … a sales tactic,” said Quinn, who added that the rep called him up and asked, “‘Did you notice what I did? Well, we can keep doing that for you.’”

It could all just be coincidence, or overly aggressive sales reps misrepresenting Yelp in pursuit of a sale. It could also be that business owners are seeing a conspiracy where in reality there’s just algorithms and the up-front Yelp offer: you can pay to have a single review (labeled “sponsored review”) posted above the machine-sorted group of all reviews.

“Yelp and the Business of Extortion 2.0″ (Thanks to everyone who sent this in!)
Yelp’s Response [Yelp.com]

Comments

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  1. LucyTuzy says:

    Dude, I wrote a not so great review for a local Seattle salon a couple of months ago. My review has since disappeared and now it’s one of the top rated salons. This could explain a lot.

  2. B says:

    I think I can guess what the “algorithm” looks like: The more money you pay in advertising, the better the review score.

  3. dorianh49 says:

    Yelp must’ve misinterpreted the roos.

  4. Saboth says:

    Wait, so who makes the “machine sponsored” review? The client? Yelp?

    • Chris Walters says:

      @Saboth: machine-sorted, as in algorithmic. Like how Google sorts search results.

      The “sponsored” review, on the other hand, is selected by a human (presumably the restaurant owner with Yelp’s guidance) and placed above the rest of the reviews.

      • Triterion says:

        @Chris Walters: Maybe it’s the “sponsored” review that gave those business owners the wrong idea about moving the reviews? Regardless, Yelp should not be in the business of taking money from business owners because it causes a conflict of interest.

  5. Parapraxis says:

    Sad if true- I use yelp for a lot of suggestions for place to eat and travel to… however, most of the places I’ve been to, are not sponsoring yelp, but are on there.

    Granted, I’m in the Southern California area, so the shenanigans may not have hit us yet…

  6. cuchanu says:

    This is bullshit… assuming it’s true this should be the kiss of death for them. After all what good is a review website with fake and/or selective deleting of reviews?

  7. zaquon says:

    Personally I’m wary of any company that has a logo that resembles one of Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite drawings representing a certain part of the human anatomy. See also: Walmart.

  8. Pokie Spout says:

    The businesses are 100% accurate in their assessment of Yelp. I co-own a business in Chicago and it has been an ongoing battle with them! My business is great, and we get almost all five-star reviews, so the amount of damage Yelp can cause is negligible. But there is one review that is filled with misinformation, and my problems all began when I tried to get Yelp to remove or correct the review (I provided documentation to prove that the review was inaccurate).
    Yelp has deleted my account several times. Since I won’t advertise, they delete almost all of my current positive reviews, leaving up the four-stars but keeping the five-stars to a minimum. They have not let my business have a new review last more than 24 hours since last November. I will never, EVER give them any money.

    • Ben King says:

      @Pokie Spout: Are you saying that you deliberately write 4 or 5 star reviews for your own business? Because that is something that they will not let you do, as they consider it a conflict of interest.

    • AwesomeJerkface says:

      @Pokie Spout:

      You’re not the only one:
      [www.sfgate.com]

      Even worse… someone made false accusations of insurance fraud, but such is Yelp, it’s better for a business to kindly ask Yelp to remove false reviews and if they don’t, hope that positive reviews by customers out weigh the negative ones.

  9. DarkKnightShyamalan says:

    Yelp only wields power as long as people take it seriously. (Which no one ever should.)

  10. johnfrombrooklyn says:

    Yelp is a menace and should be shut down. It’s absolutely not accurate. It’s very biased. And if you are a business that trys to contact them about obvious fake bad reviews, they immediately try to sell you advertising and imply that’s the only way you can get rid of the negative reviews. I’ve got plenty of clients who can back up these allegations. It’s a total scam.

  11. johnfrombrooklyn says:

    I tell all my clients to enlist every person they know and fill Yelp up with fake positive reviews. It’s the only solution.

  12. linkura says:

    Interesting, I posted a few reviews on Yelp a few months ago. They were both positive and negative. Decided to check on them and they’re all gone. Both the positive and negative ones. WTF?

    • MMD says:

      @linkura: Same here. I posted a rave review of my favorite Chinese restaurant, but after I posted a negative review of a clothing boutique that couldn’t be bothered to be open during its posted hours, both reviews were removed.

    • metaled says:

      @linkura:
      you don’t work for YELP, so your review is suspect.. and had to be removed. HAHAHA

  13. krunk4ever says:

    Guess we can’t really trust yelp for restaurant recommendations anymore…

  14. Wombatish says:

    “It could all just be coincidence, or overly aggressive sales reps misrepresenting Yelp in pursuit of a sale. It could also be that business owners are seeing a conspiracy where in reality there’s just algorithms and the up-front Yelp offer: you can pay to have a single review (labeled “sponsored review”) posted above the machine-sorted group of all reviews.”

    This surprisingly avoided pointing the finger at Yelp -anywhere-, even as a possibility.

    The title of the story also seems to belay the negative implications for Yelp.

    Seems kind of fishy, but maybe I’m just seeing things everywhere now.

    • Chris Walters says:

      @Wombatish: yeah but right above that, I quote two very damning testimonies from actual businesses. Just trying to present both sides, because there’s no clear hero/villain in this story as I see it.

      • Wombatish says:

        @Chris Walters: Good to know you haven’t had your review moved up :P

        But like I said, I was probably just reading too much into it. Turns out that is apparently the case.

        Apologies.

  15. lisa1120 says:

    Hmmm, I just went to check and a 1-star review I posted was still up. I’ve never even noticed advertising on the site before.

  16. smackswell says:

    As someone who’s worked in a new business, and watched their yelp reviews daily, this has been obvious for a while. The bad reviews disappear or get bumped down when they come to hit you up for money. They reappear when you say no.

    Yelp is for profit. They’re gonna keep hustling for money.

  17. Corporate-Shill says:

    Cooking forums and referral sites is nothing new.

  18. sachmet says:

    jwz, who owns a nightclub in San Francisco, recently posted a blog entry about his Yelp shakedown.

    • Anonymous says:

      @sachmet: I just read jwz’s post, and I must say he does a great job of dissecting the “erroneous review” problem.

      I guess I’m one of the naive few that do read review sites. It’s usually not hard to filter out the far-out reviews, and then aggregate the sensible ones, good and bad, to get an overall idea of the product or service.

      Without the “bad” reviews, it’s impossible to get a true sense of the company being reviewed, and this is a big deal for yelp.

      Keep in mind Yelp doesn’t sell a product. The big difference between Yelp and Amazon, say, is that Yelp’s primary service *is* the review. On Amazon, the review is just an extra feature.

      So what yelp is doing would be like Amazon shipping some percent of their books with pages cut out.

      Yelp is castrating itself. I’ll never read their reviews again.

  19. Underpants Gnome says:

    So does anyone know of any good alternatives to Yelp? I’ve seen a few, but they tend to be local in nature and a lot of the reviews read like press releases.
    For example, in chicago you can use metromix.com, but it’s run by the Tribune company and is mostly just a depository for their professional reviews. I liked Yelp because it theoretically was user-driven.

    • mac-phisto says:

      @Underpants Gnome: first, let me say, can i have my underpants back? i just got paid today…maybe we can work something out.

      anyway, i just use [maps.google.com] . it’s not perfect, but the info gets better every day & it aggregates from a bunch of different places. check it out:

      [maps.google.com]

      • Claytons says:

        @mac-phisto: I second Google. It’s a decent source in bigger cities, but from my experience is virtually unused in a lot of smaller metropolitan areas. It also doesn’t pretend to be some kinf of social network like Yelp.

    • metaled says:

      @Underpants Gnome:
      ask around on a newspaper or board that is local to you. Ask for reviews or suggestion for a good company. The replies you get will probably not be some drunk rant or business war. you can also see what the reviewers post in general, see if they are connected to the business. I would never go to a review site, for a review (see ripoff-reports for hall of shame examples)
      review sites can only make money advertising in exchange to remove bad reviews!

  20. sumgai says:

    This is the end of the road for Yelp. Bad bad business practices.

  21. Caslonbold says:

    I wrote a bad review of a business and it has disappeared. Where did it go?? It just vaporized. Who removed it? There were 3 negative reviews and all have gone away. How? Why? Yelp certainly isn’t user-driven.Yelp is a scam.

  22. gStein_*|bringing starpipe back|* says:

    i didn’t realize that they sold ads. (first time i’ve ever said it in the past 3 years: adblock FTL)

    but this is why i loke consumer reports and angie’s list, it’s not influenced by companies buying ads

  23. Anonymous says:

    This sounds like a great topic for an undercover investigation conducted by a newspaper or TV station. If Yelp can’t attack the report they’re going to attack the reporter, so the entity doing the undercover investigation must itself have an unblemished reputation and a record of prior investigations which withstood media scrutiny.

  24. Claytons says:

    I’ve had reviews disappear in a small market. There seems to be no reason to take down a review for a place thta had a total of maybe 5 reviews. I now use Google to do my reviewing and I only go to Yelp if I know next to nothing about a place and no one’s reviewed it elsewhere.

  25. legwork says:

    What a shame. The number and quality of these incidents is looking gram. Even if they were all false the conflict of interest here is big.

    What the hell? Is everyone dropping out after Business 101?

  26. Anonymous says:

    To be honest, I really like Yelp. They seem to be the only review site that has accurate reviews. I only take seriously the commenters that have more than one review but still, the reviews end up being fairly accurate. It bothers me when commenters with one review give positive reviews. Sometimes these one review commenters go on for more than 2-3 pages with nondescript positive reviews. I wonder how many businesses are unfairly pumping up their business by manufacturing reviews.

  27. internetlawattorney says:

    very interesting.

  28. Stephanie Haller says:

    This is disgusting and unethical.

    From Amazon’s review problems to Yelp’s…I’m not sure who I can trust anymore. And sadly, I’m not surprised.

  29. meehawl says:

    I don’t know which is more remarkable – that this is such a big deal now, or that it apparently wasn’t when The Register wrote about it in August, 2008:

    [www.theregister.co.uk]

    • seattleperson says:

      @meehawl: well you have to admit that it’s easier for a story to get picked up if it’s in a US daily paper versus a British industry journal wesbite.

  30. WillG says:

    It’s true.

    My company had like 9 positive reviews and they called to ask us to advertise, I said no and 3 of our positive reviews disappeared.
    and some fairly off the wall negative reviews suddenly appeared.

    The REAL proof that it’s a scam is that one of the missing good reviews is by a return student that has told me that if he is logged in his good review STILL shows up, if he is not, it is gone.

    If this is an algorithm it’s one designed to scam both companies and people.

  31. veronykah says:

    All of my negative as well as positive reviews are still where I left them on yelp…

  32. savdavid says:

    YELP has lost credibility and everyone there will soon lose their job.

  33. Anonymous says:

    Yelp is lying. I put up a review for a place in Los Angeles Ca-that served me a roach and Yelp manipulated the review. It made me think that my review was online-when I logged in under my log in name but when my wife logged in to read it-my review wasnt visable to her eyes. I logged back in under my name, and the review was there to read-so my buddy logged in , under his name the review wasnt visable. Yelp is a consumer scam

  34. EricaKane says:

    That article is bogus. The lady quotes a bunch of anoymous sources, and then on the last page of the article, the reporter says she interviewed a dozen other businesses and they said they never had a problem with yelp sales people.

    If you are going to damn Yelp because of that article, then you perhaps should take some reading comprehension lessons.

    • seattleperson says:

      @EricaKane: the writing style of the source does say “college paper” a bit, but it certainly was buttressed by the number of people who commented here that backed up the story’s assertion.

  35. Ben Stedman says:

    Yeah my company had some 5 star reviews are there and they all got pulled for no reason :(

  36. EricaKane says:

    What people have backed up the assertion here? And the story’s weaknesses stand. The reporter used anoymous sources for no good reason…and then put a paragraph at the end of the story who said that a dozen local businesses have said no they have no problems with Yelp. Disingenuous, sloppy reporting.

    • crazydavythe1st says:

      @EricaKane: Exactly. There is no proof for any of this. I have written quite a few Yelp reviews, and have had no problem. I have seen reviews removed, but they usually are completely ridiculous, or it’s from a reviewer that only leaves 1-star reviews, or a reviewer that has only written 1 5-star review and absolutely nothing else ever. Why shouldn’t they remove these reviews? If I were to write an automated system for removing questionable reviews, I would start at exactly this point.

  37. gtbernstein says:

    I just noticed that a negative comment I had placed on Yelp! for the Monkey Bar in Milwaukee had bee removed and replaced with a mediocre positive one. Considering there were only two reviews for the bar (three wiht the revieeew they replaced mine with), it is surprising that any algorithm would have pulled my review off. The only reasonable conclusion is the owners of the Monkey Bar did something to influence Yelp! to remove the review.

    Makes me believe the accusations against Yelp! are true.

  38. phil28 says:

    I read the story carefully and it does lead one to question Yelp’s lack of bias. But more compelling was the CEO’s defensive and unconvincing blog response attacking many of the sources, that rightly, are fearful of being named. I asked my friend who has 3 restaurants in the Bay area about his experience with Yelp, and while he said he was never promised specific removals of bad reviews, he’s constantly bombarded by what he considers sleezy sales people who imply they can be helpful. He listed to one who requested 15 minute to make his pitch and then told him he wasn’t interested. yet he stills gets calls, all from different sales people every week or two after being promised not to be called again. He said he deals with sales people all day and those from Yelp are the worst.

    I have used Yelp, but after these revelations I think that where there’s smoke there’s fire. For the CEO to hide behind some unknown “algorithm” is not coming clean with the accusations. He should realize that once a site like Yelp is tarnished it’s reputation is gone forever.

  39. phil28 says:

    Yelp does offer this benefit if a restaurant advertises: if someone does a search for a specific restaurant, only that restaurant will appear. But if that restaurant doesn’t advertise, other nearby and competitive restaurants will come up along with the restaurant that is searched. Seems to me Yelp should have a page listing all the rules they follow.

  40. AwesomeJerkface says:

    It’s a slipper slope that swings both ways. Like the chiropractor in CA who was accused of insurance fraud by a Yelper. Yelp refused to take down the review because it was “legit”, but the insurance fraud claim wasn’t.

    I would bet money that there are many more negative reviews businesses would take down if they could help it.

    Though personally as a Yelper, I’ve found many of my reviews taken down for a variety of seemingly unsubstantial reasons.

  41. Anonymous says:

    I wrote a review of a place I’d tried eating at. I say tried, because my friend and I went there, ordered while there was only one group of people in the restaurant, and then 30 minutes later the waitress mumbled an apology for our order going missing.

    Naturally, I left a bad review. How incompetent do you have to be to not be able to take *2* orders?

    Well, my review stayed up for 2 days, and then it would only appear while I was logged in. If I go look at reviews of Bouchee’s in Long Beach anonymously, there’s no sign of my negative, but entirely accurate description of my non-eating experience there.

  42. Anonymous says:

    Yelp is utter crap.

    I once had a horrible experience at a local sushi place. Bad fish (some truly inedible), dry rice, iced tea with chunks of MOLD floating in it, and nonexistent service. They utterly refused to do anything about it, and were so angry we paid the exact balance and left. We didn’t have it in us to fight over it.

    So we got home and wrote a scathingly accurate review of our experience on Yelp. The existing review average was 4.5/5 stars… Well sure enough, a month later, two more glowing reviews had been posted, but ours was nowhere to be found, removed sometime in the intervening weeks.

    I never trust a single thing on that site anymore.

  43. HerculePoirotSF says:

    I live in San Francisco and ALL of my Yelp reviews just disappeared one day and have yet to return. Yelp won’t answer my emails as to why this happened, which confirms what I’ve suspected about the company and further supports these accusations.