Yelp and the Business of Extortion 2.0 

Local business owners say Yelp offers to hide negative customer reviews of their businesses on its web site ... for a price.

The phone calls came almost daily. It started to get creepy.

"Hi, this is Mike from Yelp," the voice would say. "You've had three hundred visitors to your site this month. You've had a really good response. But you have a few bad ones at the top. I could do something about those."

This wasn't your average sales pitch. At least, not the kind that John, an East Bay restaurateur, was used to. He was familiar with Yelp.com, the popular San Francisco-based web site in which any person can write a review about nearly any business. John's restaurant has more than one hundred reviews, and averages a healthy 3.5-star rating. But when John asked Mike what he could do about his bad reviews, he recalls the sales rep responding: "We can move them. Well, for $299 a month." John couldn't believe what the guy was offering. It seemed wrong.

In fact, something seemed shady about the state of his restaurant's negative reviews. "When you do get a call from Yelp, and you go to the site, it looks like they have been moved," John said. "You don't know if they happen to be at the top legitimately or if the rep moved them to the top. You don't even know if this is someone who legitimately doesn't like your restaurant. ... Almost all the time when they call you, the bad ones will be at the top."

Usually, John said, he would politely decline to advertise. "Well, thanks," he'd say. "I'll talk to my partner about it." Or, "It's not really in my budget right now." But inevitably, in another week or so, he'd get another phone call. Occasionally, the voice on the other end of the phone would change, but the calls continued. These days, John chooses to not answer his phone when it's from a number with a 415 area code.

John may sound paranoid, but he's got company. During interviews with dozens of business owners over a span of several months, six people told this newspaper that Yelp sales representatives promised to move or remove negative reviews if their business would advertise. In another six instances, positive reviews disappeared — or negative ones appeared — after owners declined to advertise.

Because they were often asked to advertise soon after receiving negative reviews, many of these business owners believe Yelp employees use such reviews as sales leads. Several, including John, even suspect Yelp employees of writing them. Indeed, Yelp does pay some employees to write reviews of businesses that are solicited for advertising. And in at least one documented instance, a business owner who refused to advertise subsequently received a negative review from a Yelp employee.

Many business owners, like John, feel so threatened by Yelp's power to harm their business that they declined to be interviewed unless their identities were concealed. (John is not the restaurant owner's real name.) Several business owners likened Yelp to the Mafia, and one said she feared its retaliation. "Every time I had a sales person call me and I said, 'Sorry, it doesn't make sense for me to do this,' ... then all of a sudden reviews start disappearing." To these mom-and-pop business owners, Yelp's sales tactics are coercive, unethical, and, possibly, illegal.

"That's the biggest scam in the Bay Area," John said. "It totally felt like a blackmail deal. I think they're doing anything to make a sale."

Yelp officials deny that they move negative reviews, although such allegations have surfaced many times before. The issue is even addressed on the web site's Frequently Asked Questions page. Chief Operating Officer Geoff Donaker said advertisers and sales representatives don't have the ability to move or remove negative reviews. "We wouldn't be in business very long if we started duping customers," he said.

But Donaker's denials are challenged by nine local business owners and also by a former contract employee who worked with Yelp in its early days. That person, who is still close to some Yelp employees and only agreed to be interviewed if granted anonymity, said several sales reps have told him they promised to move reviews to get businesses to advertise. "It's not illegal or unethical," he said they told him. "We're just helping the little guy. It doesn't hurt them, it benefits them."

Such tactics may be legal, but they clearly raise ethical concerns. Yelp touts its web site as consisting of "real people" writing "real reviews." The allegations of business owners who have tangled with the company suggest otherwise.

If Yelp indeed suppresses honest reviews in exchange for its advertisers' money, it is cheating users who expect genuine consumer feedback. Conversely, if Yelp demands payment to remove even dishonest reviews, then advertisers are being cheated.

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I own a business in Edmonton Alberta and all the people on the yelp boards said I was a crazy stupid business owner making up that I was offered this deal as well. Also my review has been even flagged by new anchors over 200 times because it is a girl from a competition business making up fake reviews . But all yelp people believe them . Maybe if the did not delete the good reviews and focused on deleting the bullshit ones normal people would believe more review sites.

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Posted by Lauren Bonnett on 05/20/2012 at 4:38 PM via mobile 

Whenever I go out to eat, shopping, rent a car, etc. I always leave my phone browser on Yelp, and set the phone on the table, counter, bar, wherever the proprietor/employee can not avoid a little inadvertent (or advertent) e-dropping.... I get good, quick, helpful, even enthusiastic service. Then, when they ask how everything was, I tell them that it could be a lot better if it were free.... touch phone, wink wink. I am evil like Yelp.

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Posted by Troy Deatherage on 05/18/2012 at 8:18 PM

This comment was removed because it violates our policy against anonymous comments. It will be reposted if the commenter chooses to use his or her real name.

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Posted by Editor on 05/07/2012 at 4:38 AM

We have put together a petition that we will be using to fight Yelp. Join us as we tell the world that we want our reviews back! http://tinyurl.com/73jr8sx

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Posted by Wyatt Chambers on 05/03/2012 at 8:49 PM

I just did a search about Yelp and lawsuits and found this site. I am a senior partner at large dermatology practice in Columbus, Ohio. I was informed about two negative comments in Yelp so I told my office manager to answer to these complaints and she did. During the last six months, I also started to ask my patients to post about their experiences in our practice. Yesterday, one of my patients contacted me to inform that his positive comment was removed from Yelp. Previously, a teenager acne patient told me about posting a comment that was removed from Yelp but I did not pay too much attention until now. I wonder what would happen if a contact Yelp about the removal of these positive comments. This is a serious matter that need to be addressed immediately. I am joining the class action and later today will consult my lawyer.

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Posted by J. Cruz on 04/24/2012 at 3:22 AM

I want to add a review for Encinitas BMW, I just bought a Z4 2012 , Justin was my salesman and I must say not only did he go to bat for me, but the whole dealership was fantastic. It is rare that you fing a good all around dealership that actually cares. I dealt with them in 2004-2005 and they were nothing like this. The place was very upitty and they thought because they sold BMW that they could pull all kinds of crap....this is a whole new company. Dennis Rubenstein, San Diego Ca 92122...e mail dennis92122@yahoo.com

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Posted by Dennis Rubenstein on 04/23/2012 at 4:01 PM

A person who owed our venerable (43 years and counting) and financially solid company just $150, promised to a Manager that she would "get us back" for billing her. She bragged having once studied law, and implied she had 'power.' Suddenly a HORRID, FALSE, and SLANDEROUS posting from her appeared and our stars dove down to 1 out of 5. Four reliable people then sent in corrective and positive replies. Two were posted for weeks. As soon as the other two arrived, ALL FOUR WERE REMOVED. The omniscient elephant in the room - that ubiqiitous Yelp "Algorithm" - is apparently programmed to "preserve" the bad, and sequester the good. This policy is an insult to all Americans and to our creed of Freedom, Justice, and Equality. Yes - we all need to band together and launch a Class Action Libel Suit!! We will join such a campaign in a microsecond!! JTG.

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Posted by J.T. Galle on 04/08/2012 at 4:20 PM

Rick Munaretto is absolutely right. there were nine or ten 5-star reviews posted for my dentist in Novato, including mine where I detail how she saved my life and my future by reconstructing my train wreck of a mouth. A year later I was about to write an update and saw one excoriating 1-star review. To any of us patients who know Dr. Leahn Huffman, well, we knew it had to be bogus. A Yelp creation in retaliation for not purchasing the well-known "Yelp Enhancement Package"? Probably.

Yelp is its own worst enemy, thank goodness. Mention the name Yelp to anyone these days, and most will answer: "Extortionists" or worse. What they did to you, they did to my dentist and, per the San Francisco Chronicle a few weeks back (Google: SFGate) we found out Yelp did it to the Fior d'Italia Restaurant in San Francisco. It's a good thing there is the internet so we can all share our experiences.

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Posted by Shizue Leigh Hicks on 04/07/2012 at 5:15 PM

Can you Help with Yelp?

I admittedly signed up with yelp, in 2005 when it was just a simple "tell us what you think" site. You know so others can see how hard you are working to earn their business?

I know I have had customers come in and say they have written great reviews, that I have never seen.

I have also even responded to some of the good reviews by thanking them for writing such a nice review only to have it disappear.

The bad reviews stay up. Sometime the bad ones don't relate directly to someone who can possibly have been in my building or have had a service with us.

I email Yelp and asked them to remove my business from their list. Their reply was emailed to me as follows:NOV 22, 2011 | 03:21PM PST

Hi there,Thanks for contacting Yelp.Unfortunately, we don't remove business listing information. While some business owners might prefer to keep a lower profile, this kind of information is publicly available and its use is protected under the law. More importantly, we believe that the public benefits from sharing their experiences with local businesses.Given that you have already signed up for a Business Owners Account, we encourage you to take advantage of some of the features including posting public comments of your reviews. More information can be found here:http://www.yelp.com/business/review_response Regards, Stella Yelp User Support San Francisco, California Yelp Official Blog | http://officialblog.yelp.com Yelp Frequently Asked Questions | http://www.yelp.com/faq Yelp for Business Owners | http://www.yelp.com/business

For your reference this is Case #: 367978

Now I find out that if I choose to advertise with Yelp they will be able to help me with the bad reviews.

You can't reach them by phone.

This is kind of like an alarm company braking into your home and then a few days later, trying to sell you an alarm system.

You can do a search on-line to see how many company's across the State and Country are having the same issue.

Pay-up or we will make you look bad.

Can you help with Yelp?

Regards,

Debra Morra
Lavender Fields Day Spa
Plainville, CT 06062
debra@lavenderfieldsdayspa.com

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Posted by Debra Morra on 03/26/2012 at 4:52 PM

Yelp guy contacted me today saying if i pay him he will remove the bad reviews i. I refused to advertise with them ad all my reviews were filtered!!! This is a scam!!!!

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Posted by Petra Bray on 03/13/2012 at 6:58 PM

I should mention our business is in San Jose.

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Posted by Frank Defelice on 03/07/2012 at 9:58 PM

We've had a negative review up for 5 years, even though the matter was settled 5 years ago. Some guy wanted a refund on a no refund sale. It was settled by the Better Business Bureau, but YELP never removed it. That's because we can't afford their advertising.

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Posted by Frank Defelice on 03/07/2012 at 9:56 PM

We are a Chicago dental practice that has had the same experience with Yelp. We have a 5 star rating on all other review sites. Yelp has filtered over 15 positive reviews from real patients, but kept all the negative reviews. One of our competition has a daughter that works for Yelp and they have a great rating. Interesting, right? I don't trust their site for anything.

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Posted by Rick Munaretto on 02/29/2012 at 8:40 AM

We are a dental group in the Chicago area. Yelp filters 90% of the positive reviews and has posted all the negative reviews. Patients have even emailed yelp after their review was filtered and no concrete answers. They have told us we could advertise on their site to help our situation. I would never use Yelp to go anywhere, see anybody, or believe anything they say.

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Posted by Rick Munaretto on 02/29/2012 at 8:34 AM

This is exactly what yelp is doing, they create bad reviews ,and after you have a massage offering you advertising,if you don't answer you have a call from their partners who offers you to remove the bad reviews for 299 to 599 a month.In the reviews they include a competition business name, that the costumer went to that business and they take care of the problem.Who is stupid to refuse business,but yelp makes you look bad against competition because they advertise with yelp.Yelp is trying to kill businesses in order to survive,they are liars.

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Posted by LENNY on 02/28/2012 at 8:45 AM

What I'd like to know, is why do they only seem to be extorting business owners in the Bay area? The only complaints seem to be coming from that isolated area. It seems a little fishy to me.

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Posted by Mark Anthony Bauser on 02/27/2012 at 11:45 AM

Wow...I have always enjoyed using Yelp as a customer and do my best to make sure I leave good reviews for businesses that I think deserve it since I know how damaging negative reviews can be to these same businesses and the fact that upset people always are more likely to share their opinions with others. However, after reading this article and comments I'm saddened to think that my positive reviews might only show up for these businesses if they agree to advertising with Yelp. If this is true - it is wrong and evil. I think Yelp better respond to this article right away and answer to these accusations.

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Posted by Jon Halvorsen on 02/07/2012 at 10:38 AM

This comment was removed because it violates our policy against anonymous comments. It will be reposted if the commenter chooses to use his or her real name.

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Posted by Editor on 01/23/2012 at 11:20 AM

Why is it legal for Yelp to create algorithms that manipulate the order and placement of reviews? What should appear is what was posted, in the order they were posted with no deletions other than truly offensive, blatenly false type of reviews. So, both the good and the bad would fade into the sunset and what appears at a given time reflect the current mood of the customer/vendor relationship.

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Posted by Celina G on 01/23/2012 at 10:11 AM

Another business owner here being terrorized by Yelp. We have a total of more than 250 reviews, most overwhelmingly positive. As of this writing, we have 53 visible reviews.

I succumbed to their pressure tactics a year ago for $550 per month. About 3/4 of the way into the year, I realized that I was getting almost nothing out of it -- unlike many other commentors, I was never offered any special favors -- just the same marginal benefits every other advertiser gets. In fact, not long after the ad campaign began, a hell of a lot of our reviews were filtered.

Not long before it was time to re-up our campaign, more 5-star reviews started disappearing. I told my rep it wasn't worth it anymore, and I'd take my chances after the contract was up. She called to discuss, but her otherwise cheery attitude was definitely more "withdrawn" than anything. And, sure enough, since I cancelled the contract, I haven't been able to keep a good review on the site longer than a week. Our last 5-star, which appeared on the 17th, was archived on the 18th.

The negative reviews? They're mostly still there, of course. I used to chalk that up to the fact that there's a tendency among Elites and other frequent users to assume they wear a sheriff's badge of Consumer Advocatetown, and tend to be more critical. However, after reading this article and all the comments, I'm sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that Yelp is guilty of AT LEAST having a bad algorithm. More likely than not, though, they're just dirty.

I look forward to the class action lawsuit, or at least an enterprising investigative journalist getting in on the inside of Yelp and figuring out what really goes on.

By the way, do a Google image search for Yelp sometime. It looks like they're having some wild parties out there in San Francisco.

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Posted by Christopher Jolma on 01/21/2012 at 7:30 AM

if you check some of the companies, at the bottom of the reviews list the "filtered reviews" in which there is no rhyme or reason to why they are indeed filtered, I typically choose to read those as well when making a decision... I also know people that have been contacted by yelp for similar reasons. It's a shame

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Posted by Michael Zoltek on 01/17/2012 at 9:13 AM

I was just contacted (again!) by a Yelp ad sales rep. The first time I hung up as soon as they said "Yelp." They called again, I answered, and they went into their sales pitch. After I went into a rant about Yelp extorting small businesses, I got her full name. I also have screen captures of my company's Yelp page BEFORE talking to this recent sales person... and I will screen capture my company's page AFTER.

Plus I'm on the National Do Not Call list....

So, I have a sales person's full name (which led me to her facebook profile and personal info), and I have substantial proof that Yelp employees call, and when you say "no," they damage businesses as penalty.

Do I share this sales reps facebook page link?

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Posted by Brad Reason on 01/06/2012 at 12:59 PM

After writing some reviews of local businesses yesterday, I saw the "newest reviews" tab and I clicked it. it was a 5 star review for a towing company that was very strange. It was about how drunk people call towing companies to haul them out of ditches and then get angry later when they cannot remember who towed their car. it was by "Dan J". it seems to be in response to a one star review where someone said they were charged $95.00 to get their car back and then told "your car is not here". Anyway today the negative review is GONE, and it shows the 5 star review as the only and "first one"! the owner of the business is named Dan Johnson. I wonder what happened. Did yelp remove the negative review for Dan? Did Dan settle with the angry customer and the customer removed their review? These events make me unlikely to trust Yelp especially now that Johnsons towing in bellingham washington has a 5-star rating

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Posted by Peter Springer on 01/06/2012 at 11:27 AM

I've been yelping for a few years now and always "thought" the information was trustworthy and informative. THAT IS, however, until a long time family friend started getting poor reviews about his very successful photography business. Coincidentally, this started after a nasty breakup with a "poorer than dirt golddigger OC housewife wanna-be". Hope I made that clear. Anyhoo.... the girl happens to have a lot of wealthy friends and some in powerful places. All of a sudden, oodles of positive five star reviews disappeared. Just magically moved to filtered and three phony negative reviews showed up. Not only are any NEW positive five star reviews automatically and immediately moved to filtered, but the three negative ones don't go anywhere and they are complete bogus. Inquiries to yelp as to why this is happening only get the canned "automatic filter" link in response. It is a total scam and I could not be more disgusted. What a joke.

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Posted by Andrea Baker on 01/02/2012 at 12:00 PM

My business had dozens of positive reviews on various sites & then I started getting calls from Yelp. The reviews disappeared & now I have none. They didn't promiss to get my reviews back, but they sure hinted they could help. They are just one more scam that small business has to fight. Don't look for any help from our friendly goverment. They are busy helping business in other countries.

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Posted by Tom Stephens on 12/19/2011 at 7:00 PM
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