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Business Owners 'Yelp' About Internet Ratings Site

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) ― "This is like you coming out here and trying to accomplish something, and someone is saying something horrible about you, and it's painful," said Selena Kellinger.

Kellinger has been "Yelped!" by a website getting up to 10 million users a month. Reviews here can help or hurt a business. "A lady posted a really horrible review," said Selena.

So, Kellinger, whose business Razzberry Lips does makeover parties for little girls, called Yelp because she says the posting was slanderous. "We kind of felt that it was saying that we were doing something illegal," said Kellinger.

But Yelp's policy is not to remove negative postings. "Instead they removed some positive postings. They refused to remove the bad posting, and then they called me to solicit a business account," said Kellinger.

A business account called a "Sponsorship Program" allows businesses to bring a favorite review to the top, provide a photo slideshow, and a message from the business owner.

Kellinger said Yelp told her they would move the negative posting to the bottom of her page. Kellinger refused to pay. "I felt like that was really unfair, and that they were holding me hostage," said Kellinger.

Mary Seaton of the Sofa Outlet was also Yelped! "A customer had written a negative review. ... So, about a week after that Yelp contacted us, and said, 'We noticed that you had some negative reviews, and we would like to help you with that. ... If you pay $350 a month'," said Seaton.

So she paid for five months, a total of $1750. Seaton said some of her negative reviews were moved to the bottom. But, Seaton said, "All of a sudden some more negative reviews got posted, but there were no favorable or positive reviews."

So she canceled. "I feel like they are extorting money and preying basically on business owners," said Seaton.

"Yelp will not take a negative review and move it somewhere else," said Stephanie Ichinose of Yelp. She said that the $350 is to enhance a business' presence, a major source of Yelp's revenue.

"We have a majority of advertisers which are locally owned businesses that are purchasing the enhanced profiles," said Ichinose.

Both Seaton and Kellinger said they have customers who posted favorable reviews that were taken down. But Yelp said they have proof that some of those favorable reviews are written by the business owners or their friends. "When we see that kind of suspicious activity taking place, we will move quickly to take action against it," said Ichinose.

But some consumers question the integrity of the site if certain businesses indicated they're being asked to pay to downplay negative reviews. "You have to know in the back of your mind that someone could be paying to make the results end of up higher," said Mark Ettlenger.

"I think that would be unfair and unhonest. I wouldn't appreciate that," added Analisa Goodin.

Another growing problem: customers threatening to "Yelp you" with a negative review to get free services or products. So, some stores, like Roos in Oakland, are posting signs saying "No Yelpers."

But in fairness, you can "Yelp" Yelp. Kellinger did. "We posted a bad review about Yelp that they did this, but they removed that one," said Kellinger.

(© MMVIII, CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

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