More Business-Owners Accuse Yelp Of Review Extortion

The review website Yelp is being accused again of extorting small business owners — but this time the business owners say that Yelp used the guarantee of positive reviews to get free products for their events. The Chicago Tribune has a quote from the owner of a cupcake shop who says that Yelp “guaranteed us good reviews on the site if we catered one of their parties for free.”

From the Chicago Tribune

They allege that Yelp representatives have offered to rearrange positive and negative reviews for companies that advertise on the site or sponsor Yelp Elite parties.

Ina Pinkney of Ina’s restaurant in the West Loop said that last summer a Yelp salesperson offered to “move up my good reviews if I sponsored one of their events. They called it rearranging my reviews.”

The owner of More Cupcakes, Patty Rothman, said that last fall a Yelp Chicago staffer walked into her Gold Coast shop and “guaranteed us good reviews on the site if we catered one of their parties for free.” Offended but resigned, Rothman complied. And just as promised, positive reviews bloomed for the business right after the party, Rothman said

Yelp has vehemently denied that its even possible for salespeople to modify the reviews based on advertising. Their CEO told the Tribune that the reports of extortion were probably “due to a game of telephone” and that “certain people misunderstood what was being offered.”

Chicago proprietors add to Yelp allegations [Chicago Tribune] (Thanks, David!)

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  1. winner says:

    I had a terrible experience with an optometrist and posted a negative review warning potential customers about a filthy office and terrible experience. I noticed that I wasn’t the first; there were FIVE negative reviews. My review was up for about a week before it was removed – along with all the other negative reviews. I emailed Yelp to ask why it had been removed and never got an answer.

    Shady style.

    • Comms says:

      @winner: “My review was up for about a week before it was removed”

      This pretty much makes Yelp useless to me, as far as I’m concerned.

  2. rpm773 says:

    Say what you will, but I guess this is one way of separating your operation from the increasingly large amount of worthless review sites/portals that bubble up to the top of the results when searching for doctors, restaurants, real estate, cars, and just about any other generalized topic on Google.

    • RogueSophist says:

      @rpm773: How is that? Isn’t this one way of adding your operation to the increasingly large amount of worthless review sites/portals?

      • rpm773 says:

        @RogueSophist: Because a lot of those other sites are completely devoid of any reviews or information. At least Yelp had something on it.

        But you’re right, once the word gets out that Yelp cooks its reviews, any value it originally had will be marginalized.

  3. Dave Marcus says:

    On the face of it sounds like a new version of “protection” offered by gangs and by the Mafia?

  4. AaronBSam says:

    As a member of the Yelp site, I am fairly sure that a business can pay to have a positive review HIGHLIGHTED which brings it to the top. Otherwise, all reviews for the business are sorted based on algorithms and not by Yelp staff.

    Also, Yelp events that are sponsored by businesses have separate Event pages for partiers to post their reviews for the event. Some guests will inevitably fail to place their review in the right place, but many of those are caught and moved to the Event page.

    As for “guaranteeing” good reviews as a result of sponsoring an event? I doubt Yelp said those words, but probably guaranteed an increase in reviews in general, as there is a distinct pattern that can be seen between sponsoring an event and the number of reviews for the business in general. And yes, people who associate that business with the fun of a party are probably likely to review favorably, but there’s no guarantee.

    Just the opinion of one humble reviewer for Yelp.

    • From the cubicle of PGibbons says:

      @AaronBSam: Too many identical stories coming from unrelated business owners in different regions with no axe to grind. Yelp is shooting themselves in the foot with this protection racket.

  5. philmin says:

    I believe this happened, but that the yelp employee either 1) wasn’t a yelp employee or 2) totally misrepresented themself to get something, assuming there would’nt be any serious consequences.

    How much money does a website like yelp even bring in? Im guessing its very low, I couldnt imagine them having that many employees even.

  6. tc4b says:

    Can you use Yelp to review your local Yelp service?

  7. metaled says:

    I have no doubt this is going on, but we really need some proof! We need some people to come forward with recorded phone calls or even ex-employees who are willing to talk about the sales practices. (it’s cheap and easy to record phone calls!)
    What about posting reviews of Yelp, on Yelp and see what happens to their reviews across the country? Legitimate reviews from the people who have a gripe about the service and how they are treated.. Some screen shots of the Before and After? If they all disappear, then it would prove they are a fraud and edit the reviews. I bet they would be one of the worst reviewed companies out there!
    The info is just too good for all these people to make up and they defend themselves to much… like they have been rehearsing it to defend against stuff that hasn’t even come up yet. if it was false, they should just brush it off (or prove it in court!)
    I bet they even have employees sign non-disclosure so they can’t talk about the business practices.. If it’s all true, they need to held accountable, they are hurting the small business man and endangering their ability to make a living. The worse thing possible in this economy! Almost as bad as ripoff-report! I am sure the feds could get them for racketeering. Especially if they make-up fraudulent reviews.
    I won’t consider using them because I know the B2B BS and won’t trust reviews that they won’t consider removing as being fraudulent (with or without pay!). It’s not good for any business, except YELP!

    • seattleperson says:

      @metaled: I agree; I don’t think that it’s a coincidence or a scheme that all of these business owners are coming out with the same story about Yelp’s shady dealings, but right now it’s only been testimonials, which only go so far. There’s still a shadow of a doubt that Yelp is innocent here. An email from a Yelp representative (although they are probably too smart to put anything in writing) or a phone call recording of a “pay for play” proposal would go a very long way.

    • xip says:

      @metaled:

      It’s cheap and easy to record phone calls, but you have to make sure that the person you’re recording knows that you’re recording them. Otherwise, it’s illegal.

      • Kimaroo - 100% Pure Natural Kitteh says:

        @xip: That depends on the state you live in.. in Texas it’s legal to record as long as ONE of the parties knows that it’s being recorded.

      • metaled says:

        @xip: It’s not legal in Calif. (here), if both parties do not know….. But it can be handle easily enough.
        Or do what they do, set your computer up to answer the call “in the order it was received”, play elevator music and notify the person that “your call is important to us, all calls may be monitored for quality control”. They will probably think it is a load of BS or a canned message if done right… They just don’t know the quality control is of “their company”. Make sure the recording has that notice recorded as well. A lot of modems can do this with the right software. They may not have intended for the entire sales call to be recorded, but they were informed that it might happen!

        • RedwoodFlyer says:

          @metaled: I always wondered about phone recording laws…say you’re on a cell phone. Is it based on your billing address, or on the state you’re currently in? How about if you’re driving and while on the line, cross a state border into a state that doesn’t allow recording?

  8. moore850 says:

    “certain people misunderstood what was being offered.”…
    In other words, “we misunderstood that we would be caught making those offers”.

  9. ChChChacos says:

    This is a good question, can you review your local Yelp service? I wish you could because I’d put in my two cents. The Boston local Yelp sucks when it comes to emailing them for questions. I’ve tried to become an elite member, because I see others in my area (not a very big Yelp area, town outside of Boston) are Elite. I have 100+ reviews and local photos.Yet when I’ve questioned why people with 20-ish reviews are “Elite” status I get no response. It seems like a weird way of picking and choosing.

  10. johnfrombrooklyn says:

    It’s funny how often we hear “based on an algorithm”. Google’s search is “based on an algorithm”. Yelp is based on an “algorithm”. Of course nobody ever tell us what is this algorithm which means it could be f(x) = $ where $ = how much money you pay Yelp.

    I also remember reading a year ago how Wall Street could never fail because of its complex algorithms. We know how that turned out.

    Yelp is a scam.

  11. fatcop says:

    @xip: Depends on where you are and where they are. Don’t make blanket statements like that.

  12. TEW says:

    I knew it was too good to be true. God forbid that we get an honest reviews from people. @Seattleperson- I believe there is whistle blower protection that would override the nondisclosure agreements. If this is true then it is extortion and they could all go to prison. Sorry the reply button was not working.

  13. AaronBSam says:

    Well the default “algorithm” that is used when you open a business’ page is a combination of “how recent is the review” and “how many Cool/Funny/Useful votes has it received”.

    I suppose that one COULD manipulate the order of reviews by creating dummy accounts and voting Cool/Funny/Useful for the ones you want on top. In fact, I don’t doubt that people DO or HAVE DONE that…

    But for the number of people doing that, there’s a ton more who Yelp responsibly.

    I really wouldn’t call the website a scam.

  14. Corporate-Shill says:

    “certain people misunderstood what was being offered.”

    Yea, right. And I need the money in an unmarked envelope or your building might need extra fire insurance is not a threat either.

  15. Daniels says:

    Is Yelp the place to go for people who review dive bars by saying “this bar is such a dive” and then rate it at one star for being a dive bar?

    • From the cubicle of PGibbons says:

      @Daniels: that’s usually because those types of people get laughed at for showing up in swim trunks. Revenge on Yelp is sweeeet!

  16. Mr_Human says:

    I’ve had a review of mine removed that actually called out a food market for deceptive and bad practices (they were and are repackaging meat with the current date. Don’t know why it was removed, but it seemed shady.

  17. Garbanzo says:

    I am also suspicious of Yelp. After I had a bad experience at a restaurant (the proprietor refused to give me water because he wanted me to spend money on a drink and argued with me when I didn’t order the dish he thought I should!) I posted a detailed, specific review relating what had happened. When I checked a few months later, my review had disappeared — but if I log into Yelp it reappears. So apparantly if anyone else looks up that restaurant all they see is glowing reviews saying how funny the quirky proprietor is, but if they know I’m looking at it they hide the fact that they removed my review. Definitely fishy.

  18. Keter says:

    The database system used by Yelp definitely can be “fine tuned” to preferentially rearrange the order of reviews (such as to push favorable reviews to the top so they are the first ones the user sees) or to push certain businesses’ overall rankings over others’ based on an internal modifier.

    Whether they are actually doing this cannot be known from the outside without setting up a test account and controlling the reviews that go into it and see what happens. That could be done by a smart organization like Consumer Reports.

    BTW, I used to manage online ratings and reviews for another company, which, at the time I was there, did play a little bit with the reviews, but not badly so. The truth was still in there, and negative reviews weren’t deleted unless they were profane or traceably planted by a competitor. There were even times we cleaned up a really substantive negative review that would have been rejected for profanity by removing the offending word. Smart retailers understand the value of negative reviews – they inform the retailer that they are selling a poor product and should discontinue carrying it to avoid losing customers.

  19. Sean Myers says:

    I have a couple of restaurants that I go to on a regular basis. I went to Yelp and saw they were getting some bad reviews. Which wasn’t my experience at all….ever. So I gave them a good review. The next day…I can’t even find my good review. It was pushed down….algorithms my butt.

  20. From the cubicle of PGibbons says:

    San Francisco Weekly did a nearly identical report not long ago. Different businesses, thousands of miles from Chicago, but exactly the same stories quoted from salespeople and merchants. Those that paid saw their negative reviews vanish, those that did not suddenly had an influx of bad reviews.

    Yelp seems to be treading on some very dangerous ethical and legal ground here. I hope these businesses are documenting with screenshots and recording dates, times, and exact details of the sales calls.

  21. unobservant says:

    If you want the truth, don’t look at the default arrangement. Use your own “algorithm.” Check by low-high reviews and, from that, look at the reviewers themselves. If they have a bajillion reviews and/or are an “elite” member, take it with a grain of salt. This goes for good AND bad reviews. You know what I’m talkin’ about.

  22. lolwutrly says:

    This sort of thing has been going on for a while:

    [willdo.pwblogs.com]

  23. Anonymous says:

    A related article: “Yelp and the business of Extortion 2.0″ was just published in the East Bay Express (SF Bay Area) for the week of Feb 18-24th. It’s a lengthy expose, describing how Yelp staff allegedly have called businesses and offered to rearrange or remove negative reviews for a monthly fee.

    Article online URL: http://www.eastbayexpress.com/news/yelp_and_the_business_of_extortion_2_0/Content?oid=927491

  24. Allen Harkleroad says:

    Personally I would never pay to have my site on something like Yelp, the actual percentage of my potential customers using such a service is rather low (less than .0001%) so why waste money on a poor return on investment?

    If you are listed at Yelp and your thing something is shady, just stop using the service, enough disgruntled users do the same thing and Yelp will go poof one day to never be heard or seen again.

    These kinds of services are targeted at extracting as much money as they can from business owners (just like the yellow pages, PPC search engine advertising and other useless Internet and print advertising).

    Just my .02 of course!

  25. friendlynerd says:

    I thought about linking to that Will Do series as the main reason I don’t trust Yelp. At all.

  26. foodporncess says:

    God I am so tired of all this Yelp extortion crap. I actually happen to know the community manager in Chicago and am good friends with another Yelp Community manager in another city.

    There’s no damned extortion people! Yelp is not the mob, they aren’t extorting money from businesses in return for good reviews.

    The fact of the matter is, if a business sponsors a Yelp event somehow, whether through free food, discounted services, drinks or whatever, they are ALWAYS, and I mean, ALWAYS positively mentioned in both reviews of the event and reviews of their businesses. Real people who like Yelp are easily swayed by free shit. It’s just human nature.

    • metaled says:

      @foodporncess: That does not mean it is not going on, it just means your friends that work there are saying it does not go on or are not aware of it going on.
      I am sure you trust your friends, but it would really be their jobs if they told you it was going on, you posted it here… It’s in their best interest to say “no” or act dumb. They would be stupid to say it was happening.
      Employees always deny acts that can cost them their jobs, even under oath. Friends always are shocked when the truth comes out.

    • seattleperson says:

      @foodporncess: well if the two people you know accurately represent every single yelp employee and member then it sounds like we’re all in the wrong.

  27. incongruity says:

    I’ll say this much — yelp has consistently helped me find good to great places to eat/drink/party/play/shop. It was a huge asset when we moved to a new city halfway across the country ~ 2 years ago and had few sources for local wisdom. Not once have I been steered horribly wrong by yelp when there are a significant number of yelp reviews for a place.

    I can’t speak to the allegations of manipulation or pushy sales tactics — they may well happen, but it doesn’t reduce the huge value that Yelp has been to me…

    Full disclosure: Because it’s been such a great help to us, I decided to view it as a bit of a community service project to give back so now I’m an active yelp reviewer with almost 200 reviews and “elite” status, though I’ve never gone to any of the elite parties or even gotten my yelp shirt. (I do know the secret handshake, however) — but I am in no way compensated or otherwise affiliated with yelp.

  28. metaled says:

    Reviews are only good for looking up BAD reviews on someone and then they could be suspect , bad reviews from competitors or unhappy customer making things up because they couldn’t return 90% eaten food, 20 month old computer they formatted, etc…
    How often do you enjoy a good meal, go home and go out of your way to tell others you enjoyed yourself? Not often… If it was bad, you bet you will tell people. but hardly anyone would go out of their way to praise service/products they expect to get for their money. Good reviews from people make me more suspicious of restaurants or businesses.
    Anyone see “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmare’s” where he read restaurant reviews on a particular kitchen, they all read the same and had mistakes on all sights, he confronted the owner who admitted to creating fake accounts and writing the reviews on dozens of review sites!!!! They read like ads. Why would anyone write a good review for service they expect to receive, “above and beyond” would be different story. Tons of good reviews make me look elsewhere.

  29. Anonymous says:

    if you aren’t a regular reviewer and you only go on to yelp to blast a business you had a bad experience with, your reviews will disappear after a few weeks of inactivity. if you actively review stuff (or just have a lot of reviews) this does not happen.

    the reviews don’t get deleted–you will see them under your own profile if you look… but the algorithm that displays them under a business page takes into account each reviewer’s own activity

  30. Paprika Jones says:

    i belong to a gym that is actually a fitness co-op in SF. in order to be a member, you have to hire team up with a personal trainer, but the gym is open to you anytime, for as long as you want. due to the nature of the trainer/co-op arrangement, the service is IMPECCABLE. they’re all genuinely good people, and good at what they do. as a result, they have a perfect five star review based on over 30 reviews–there isn’t one single review that’s below a five. we all know each other there–it’s totally believable. anyway, yelp keeps calling and harassing the gym, claiming fishiness because of all the good reviews, but they won’t listen to any of the members, and all of a sudden, some reviews are missing….. (i mean, it’s still five stars, and perfect, but still…)

    i’m not going to say yelp is the mob, but there’s something going on here. to many businesses are claiming the same things.

  31. veronykah says:

    re: metaled
    I write good reviews for places I go on Yelp. Why wouldn’t you? You would have a great meal at a great restaurant and tell no one? Not me.
    If I go somewhere and love it I encourage my friends and fellow yelpers to go there too. I want to see businesses I like succeed.
    That being said I also make sure to post about places I’ve been that suck too. I don’t want anyone else to make the same mistake I have and give them their money.
    I have written 5 star and 1 star reviews for quite a few places, they are all still there. Does this extortion not happen in NYC or LA?

  32. Anonymous says:

    I wrote a review of a bar/karaoke place here in LA. It was almost entirely complimentary, but I mentioned that their bills weren’t itemized and my wife AND sister both had extra drinks on their bills the same night. I got an angry email from the bar owner (who, I could tell from clicking on his name and viewing his reviews, had given his own bar positive reviews). Yelp took down my comment a few days later.

  33. probablyawkward says:

    I hate Yelp. The general review tone is juvenile and too cute by far. It’s all these quirky names for significant others (“husbear,” “babyhubby,” “cutemuffin” etc. etc.) and star ratings that seem to have no correlation to the text of the review itself (“food was disgusting, meal was expensive, server was sort of cute: 5 stars!”).

    I wish there was another consistent review source — Does anyone still use Citysearch? Are they just as corrupt?

  34. Anonymous says:

    I’m a manager at a restaurant that is posted on Yelp. I don’t hold any grudges against Yelp, but their system needs to be changed.

    Yelp chooses people to be elite members, who’s reviews of places go on top of the reviews list for anything they review. All fair play. But who is to keep these elite members in check.

    In my opinion, this extortion of reviews in exchange for free food was probably not a Yelp Employee, but these community employees they hire as “elites”. The “employee” probably walked into the restaurant asking for free food, in exchange for getting a big fat 5 star rating on the top of their site.

    Now, thats fine by me, but when “elites” start posting 1 star ratings at the restaurant I manage and leave comments saying, “who gave the right to these fuckers to sell shitty food” without any detailed review as to why we deserve this 1 star rating, and also leaving in the comment that he’s friends with the chef at our competitors restaurant, then what am I to do. Our restaurant doesn’t even have a website yet, so when you google it up, the first thing that comes up is that exact comment. Im sorry Yelp, but keep your “elites” in check.

    I’ve had plenty of customers telling us “we love your food, but have you tried googling your stores name? the first thing that pops up is someone leaving a bash on yelp for you.” Atleast give other customers a chance to leave a straightforward review instead of putting everything below that crap.

    We serve everyone the same, we don’t have the time to give special treatment to these so called “restaurant reviewers”. Just because you have beef with the owner of the place or you’re connected with our competitors.

  35. Ms. Pants says:

    I’m friends with a lovely girl who worked for Yelp for a while. She’s essentially told us that the allegations are basically true. And the guys who run the site are some shaaaaaady fuckers.

  36. scotty321 says:

    I wrote 6 reviews on the yelp.com site about 6 local businesses that I did business with: 3 of them were positive reviews and 3 of them were negative reviews. My negative reviews were very thoughtfully & carefully written and did not violate any of Yelp’s terms of services. One of my negative reviews, for example, was for a taxicab company which never showed up to pick me up from my apartment, even though I waited 60 extra minutes past the arrival time for them to come, and after calling the taxicab company 5 times to check on where they were. (“Just 5 more minutes, Mr. Rose.”)

    Within 60 days of posting my 3 negative reviews (for 3 different companies) to Yelp’s website, all 3 of my negative reviews had been removed from the respective companies’ profiles on the Yelp site. Interestingly enough, the negative reviews still show up FOR MY EYES ONLY in my personal & private profile when I log into the Yelp website, but they have miraculously been HIDDEN on the companies’ pages themselves.

    So I started asking around, and lo and behold, many of my friends who had written negative reviews for businesses started noticing the same thing: their negative reviews were still in their own personal profiles (for their eyes only), but their negative reviews were NOWHERE TO BE FOUND on the company pages in question.

    So I emailed yelp.com and asked them about my reviews being removed… they only replied to my emails with a form letter directing me to the FAQ’s on the site. I replied back several times, asking to have a conversation with a supervisor about this issue, and they continually replied with form letters directing me to the FAQ’s on their site. After trying to make live human contact with yelp.com on 5 separate occasions, I finally gave up.

    I started bitching about this enough that a friend of mine told me that his business is on yelp.com. He told me that shortly after signing up for yelp.com, he got a call from the folks at yelp who offered him a deal that he just couldn’t refuse. If he paid yelp.com a reasonable sum to advertise his company on their website, then yelp.com would suppress all negative reviews about his business. Sounds like Yelp has figured out a good little moneymaking business on the side, huh? And this explains why some negative reviews appear on the site for SOME companies, but not for other companies. Those companies who allow the negative reviews to show up about their own business are the ones who are truly the more honest & upstanding companies… because they didn’t pay to have them suppressed. My friend also told me that he is allowed by yelp.com to write an unlimited number of positive reviews about his own company, under multiple identities, without suppression.

    Pretty shady stuff, huh?

    So, folks, I urge you to NEVER go to yelp.com and NEVER support this fraudulent, criminal website which pretends to be something that it is not.

  37. Anonymous says:

    Angie’s List charges members about $10 – 20 to join and get access to reviews, post reviews, etc. Paying is the only way to get unbiased reviews — and they have a lot of reviews.

    On the other hand, there’s even a worse site than Yelp: Diamond Certified.

    Diamond Certified is financially supported entirely by the companies it lists. They refuse to allow negative reviews. Diamond Certified is just an ad agency masquerading as a consumer rating agency. Companies listed by Diamond Certified tend to be the shady ones that need to pay to be put on a list.

    Out of four contractors — all recommended by Diamond Certified — that I used when I bought a new house, ALL FOUR were outright dishonest! 3 out of the four overcharged, and a moving company broke almost half of our dishes, then refused to pay for them. Luckily I had paid by credit card and VISA got the damage paid for when I disputed the problems. And Diamond Certified highly recommended each one of them. I called Diamond Certified for assistance; in my first call, they refused to talk to me about my complaint by immediately putting me on hold and never picking up. They did this repeatedly until I gave up trying.

    My advice: stay away from any rating agency that is paid by someone else!

    Diamond Certified is blatant about taking their companies’ side against the consumer, and it appears that Yelp has learned the extortion game.

    Pay a few bucks for Angie’s List [or any company them, that works exclusively for the paying customer]. It’s only a few bucks, and you know who they’re working for.

    Forget Diamond Certified, Yelp, and anyone else who is not working for the money you pay them. Word up.

  38. Anonymous says:

    As the front of house manager for a small family restaurant that has been open for more than 20 years, I laughed my ass off when a yelp rep called to say we had gotten some great reviews lately and would we like to buy advertising space? I asked her to send these “great reviews” and in the midst of some very good ones, she also sent some reviews that were obviously written by people who hadn’t been to the restaurant in a VERY LONG time! As in, some of the dishes that were talked about were from a very old Chronicle review. We haven’t had those particular dishes in over 10 years. Long before YELP!