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.

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Business owners are also disturbed that some negative reviews are written by paid Yelp employees. When the company first launched in 2004, its staff wrote many reviews on the site. And to this day, Yelp hires "Scouts" or "Ambassadors" to write reviews — especially when they enter new markets. CEO Stoppelman himself has written nearly eight hundred reviews. It's not immediately apparent which reviews are written by paid Yelpers until you click on a user's name to get to their profile page, where they might display a "Scout" or "Ambassador" badge.

In some cases, businesses that received negative reviews from paid Yelpers were also asked to advertise. San Francisco's Elite Cafe, which advertises with Yelp, received a two-star review by a paid Yelp ambassador, as did Anabelle's Bar and Bistro. In both instances, the negative reviews appeared after Yelp sales staff asked them to advertise. Both business owners were unaware that a paid Yelper had written a negative review of their business.

Ichinose insisted that Yelp does not use negative reviews as leads for its sales staff. But she affirmed that reps do have access to the complete profiles of sales prospects through the company's database. "Leads are determined purely by the reputation of that business," she explained. "Any sort of timing beyond that would be coincidental."

Negative reviews are not the only bait that Yelp employees apparently use to attract advertisers. Some business owners believe Yelp sales reps remove positive reviews when they refuse to buy an ad.

Robert Gaustad, co-owner of Bobby G's Pizzeria in Berkeley, said that about a year ago a Yelp sales rep offered to "move good reviews to the top to make us look better." Since declining to advertise, approximately fifteen to twenty of his restaurant's reviews — mostly positive — have been removed for reasons he can't figure out.

Gaustad said his complaints have gone unheard but that a Yelp sales rep told him his complaints would be heard if he advertised. In an e-mail from salesman Ethan Davidoff, which he read to this reporter, Davidoff told Gaustad that if he paid for an ad, "you will have access to an account manager who will help keep your page up-to-date and ... you will never have to ever wait again to talk with Yelp about your listing and issue with reviews."

A San Francisco wedding photographer relayed a similar story. About two years ago, a Yelp sales rep contacted her to advertise. The photographer — we'll call her "Mary" — declined the offer. But the sales rep was pushy; Mary said she received about three phone calls and as many as ten e-mails per week asking her to advertise. Still, she declined. "All of a sudden my reviews started disappearing," she said. "I called them up and said, 'I'm a little curious why my reviews are disappearing.' They said, 'Well, people stop reviewing, we take them down.' ... I talked to the clients — they're still actively reviewing."

"Ellen," who only agreed to be interviewed if not identified by name, owns an Oakland business with more than twenty Yelp reviews, and averages a 4.5-star rating. She says she began to receive solicitations to advertise soon after her business began receiving positive customer reviews. But she declined. "The prices were cost-prohibitive," she recalled telling the sales rep. "I can't pay $300 a month when I pay $90 for Google AdWords. After that, reviews started to disappear."

When Ellen questioned her sales rep as to why some reviews had disappeared, the rep told her reviews can be taken down based on the company's algorithm. Reviewers must follow certain guidelines to post a legitimate review, the rep replied. "They had to have pictures, friends, be part of the community," Ellen recalled the rep telling her. But Ellen says the reviews that were removed fit the profile of acceptable reviews. Ellen turned down the offer again, and more reviews disappeared. She says she's now down to 50 percent of her original reviews. "Just today I got three more e-mails from Yelp. They're aggressive. ... But it's blackmail."

Of course, none of these business owners could say for sure whether the disappearance of positive reviews was an intentional strategy or mere coincidence. Yet the claims don't appear to be far-fetched given the experience of other business owners.

Yelp suggests in its Terms of Service that it moves and removes reviews at will, without explanation: "Yelp reserves the right (but has no obligation) to remove or suppress User Content from the Site at its sole discretion for any or no reason and without notice or liability of any kind, including without limitation, the suppression or removal of User Content that Yelp deems untrustworthy or in violation of the Terms of Service or guidelines for reviews, photos, or talk threads."

COO Donaker said there are three reasons why reviews might disappear. First, they could have been removed by the reviewer who wrote them. Second, the reviews could have violated Yelp's Terms of Service by containing second-hand experiences or hearsay, personal attacks, lack of relevance, plagiarism, or a conflict of interest such as an owner praising their own business or trashing that of a competitor. Third, reviews could disappear as a result of the company's "automated review filter." Donaker says he's not exactly clear how the filter works, but that the software looks for "suspicious patterns," such as "rants and raves from friends and competitors." Yelp reviewers also can flag reviews that seem suspect, and Yelp's customer service staff then reviews them.

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