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.