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LA Times Columnist Calls Out Yelp for ‘Suppressing’ Reviews

By: 22 April 2013

I think Yelp is a fantastic service and a top resource, especially when I am travelling. But it was disturbing to read a column in The Los Angeles Times on Saturday by Sandy Banks, which suggests that Yelp is suppressing good reviews, and implies that there is a linkage between ad sales and allowing good reviews to be posted.

This isn’t the first time that Yelp has been accused of unsavory behavior. Yelp generally says it is all a series of misunderstandings about its business practices and technology. Some reviews get caught up in its algorithmic filters, which are designed to prevent businesses from hyping themselves via “fake” reviews from friends, family or paid agents. The system, unfortunately, favors frequent reviewers, who have essentially been validated.

Yelp also implies that if it has rogue salespeople lying about what they can and cannot do for advertisers, they’d be fired. “There’s no amount of money anyone can pay Yelp to manipulate reviews,” spokeswoman Kristen Whisenand told Banks.

But Banks notes a sign in the window of Bai Thong Thai, a San Francisco eatery, which asks customers to “Stop the Bully. Boycott Yelp.” The sign says that “Our customers repeatedly tell us they have submitted very good reviews. We asked Yelp. We were told ‘perhaps if you paid to do Yelp ads, we could help with this.’ We earn our good reviews. We will not pay bribes to Yelp to post them.”

Banks says the restaurants experience mirrors her own. She has posted positive reviews for her favorite hairdresser — presumably, a non-advertiser — but these reviews have been excluded, along with other acquaintances that she knows have written good reviews. Meanwhile, what is posted is a string of negative reviews.

She also notes that a number of a knitting store’s customers discovered Yelp at the same time, and sent in positive reviews. But “just about all of them were banished to Yelp’s untrusted file – while the negative reviews are all on page one. “ (Personally, I had a limo driver last year tell me that the same thing happened to him.)

I have a hard time believing that Yelp is purposely corrupting its system. The majority of Yelp’s reviews are positive. And the majority of the reviewed businesses on Yelp are not paid advertisers. But it needs to get out front on these issues.



10 Comments

10 Comments »

  • Peter Krasilovsky said:

    Banks has a followup: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me–banks-yelp-backlash-20130423,0,7103175.column. In it, she details more SMBs that say they have had reviews suppressed, and more “help” from eager sales people. SHe also provides more insight into how to write a review that gets past the filters.

  • Brad Reason said:

    I have dealt with the extortionist tactics of Yelp first hand. As a marketing director for a small business, Yelp has literally been my only obstacle.

    Yelp has a diabolical practice of burying the legitimate, favorable reviews of small businesses who refuse to submit to their exorbitant advertising program.

    I work for a small business in New York City. We have a devoted, appreciative clientele, many of whom have submitted favorable reviews, only to have them relegated to Yelp purgatory – the “filtered” review section.

    Yelp may claim that they’ve found a way to detect which reviews are legitimate and which are not via their secretive “algorithm”, however, that is not the case. In perusing the filtered reviews for my own small business, I recognize several of my clients in these reviews. These are honest, legitimate reviews. Over the past few years, we’ve received dozens of positive reviews. Because we refused to advertise with Yelp, these five-star reviews will never see the light of day, yet a mediocre anonymous review from 2008 has always remained on our Yelp page.

    Yelp’s overly aggressive sales pitch, and the vindictive consequences if you refuse them, make it clear that it is money, and not accuracy or objectivity, that is their primary concern.

    Specifics: Yelp calls businesses that have not had many reviews filtered. If the business declines the $300+ a month “advertising package” many positive legitimate reviews move the filtered section causing the business to lower in rank (usually from a 4-5 star to a 2-3 star average). Any local competing businesses in the area paying for Yelp’s advertising gets to control their reviews and keep themselves at 4-5 stars while businesses not paying Yelp appear to have flaws due to only mediocre reviews being left on the company’s Yelp page.

    There is no course of action for business owners that are against Yelp trashing their companies in this way. Yelp promotes “honest reviews from real people” but a federal investigation into Yelp would prove that the company is committing extortion and racketeering.

  • Sharon Moak said:

    I am a business owner and victim of Yelp’s extortion. Instead of complaining I am gathering evidence of their illegal practices.

    I have collected data for 690 businesses. Half were contacted by a Yelp salesperson and refused to pay for advertisement, the other half pay for ads. I calculate the effect of Yelp’s filter by adding in the filtered reviews to the unfiltered reviews. If advertising did not affect overall ratings, wouldn’t the results between the two groups be statistically similar?

    This is where I’ve got ‘em.

    Advertisers’ ratings remain largely unchanged, with an average of 0.1 star increase. Businesses who refused to advertise LOSE 0.8 STARS WITH THE FILTER.

    My own businesses falls in line with these findings. Before I was harassed by Yelp extortioners my business had a 4-star rating. Now Yelp shows 3. If I add in the filtered reviews I have 3.8.

    There are only 2 restaurants that pay for ads in my area. One has an increase of 0.1, the other is unchanged.

    This \ALGORITHM\ is nothing more than a tool to manipulate the overall ratings of businesses to force them into purchasing ads. I WON’T DO IT. I will continue collecting enough data until I have proof that will stand up in court for the next class-action lawsuit.

  • CJ Quinn said:

    Yelp is the most unethical business I have ever had the displeasure of experiencing.

    I own a woman’s fitness studio. We have over 25 reviews from our clients.
    We have two negative reviews from people who are NOT CLEINTS which are our only unfiltered reviews.

    We have 23 5 and 4 star ratings from our real clients which filtered.

    Boycott Yelp!
    I am in.

  • S B said:

    A Tale of Two Clients

    Client 1 – First Yelp Review EVER – Lengthy 5 star review about her (several year) experience of our handling her matter.
    Review was “filtered” within a couple of days.

    Client 2 – First Yelp Review EVER – Lengthy 1 star review about her experience at our firm.
    Review was NOT filtered and remained up for WEEKS.
    We cleared up the misunderstanding with the client.
    Client 2 changed that review from 1 star to 5 stars and wrote very nice things about us
    Review was “filtered” within a couple of days.

    So
    a first time 5 star review is filtered.
    a first time 1 star review is NOT filtered until weeks later when it was changed to a 5 star review…

  • Roberta said:

    I am a criminal defense attorney. Recently I had a client, who I repsented two years ago, call me about a new matter. And when I told him that I would charge him for the new work, he flipped out and posted a negative review on Yelp. Well several current and past clients (5) posted positive reviews. Yelp is now filtering all five of the positive reviews, while leaving the one bad review. In addition, it took down my account. I don’t advertise with Yelp, and I have no plans to do so. I am calling for a boycott.
    Before you roll your eyes: Yelp posted a net loss of 4.8 million dollars last quarter, and last year posted a 9.8 million dollar lost. It also has fierce competition from Facebook and Google. It is actively looking for investors. Let’s educate Yelp’s potential investors about the unsustainability of It’s business model. Yelp’s marketing plan relies heavily on extortion. You don’t like the bad review: advertise with us; you want to see the good reviews: advertise with us.
    Small business owners have had it. Many are calling for a boycott of Yelp. What investor would want to invest in a company whose client base has the ability, williness, and incentive to direct users away from from Yelp’s web site? It’s time we had a talk with those investors.

  • B. Hoffmann said:

    What many fail to realize about Yelp is how it uses it’s review filter to control the flow of business to those that pay for advertising as well.

    This is how Yelp manipulates their paid advertisers in the service industry with it’s corrupt review filter:

    We own a plumbing company and Yelp is somewhat new to our area, it started ranking high on the local SERPS maybe two years ago and subsequently people started to participate. One of my customers added me to the site and wrote a 5 star review and soon after I began to see more and more calls coming from Yelp. Before long a sales rep was calling and after a couple months of constant pestering I finally agreed to a 6 month contract. I slowly began to pick up a few reviews here and there but I noticed that they would filter literally half of my reviews, all of them 5 star. At this time I had no negative reviews but I started to realize the reason they were filtering these positive reviews; they were essentially keep me from pulling too far away from the rest of the pack (my competitors on Yelp who hadn’t signed an advertising contract yet.) The reason for this is simple; they need a certain percentage of calls going to those new potential paid advertisers and if one business is gobbling up the lion’s share of the calls for that particular category then the others will see minimal results from the site and are less likely to buy advertising. It’s one layer of control that Yelp can use to manipulate where the calls go.

    Here is another layer of control that Yelp uses against it’s customers:

    About 6 months ago a couple things changed, there were two other companies with paid advertising and suddenly I got a bad review. The review was legitimate, meaning it was a real person but it was his first and only review on the site and it stuck without getting filtered. What this gives Yelp is another layer of control because they can move his 1 star review to the top of the page if I’m getting too many hits or move it to the bottom if I’m getting so few that I’m prepared to pull my advertising dollars.

    Yelp sets up not only their review filter but also the order of the reviews to control how many calls a business can get. One businesses reputation is partiality sacrificed to raise their advertising profits. The way it’s dishonest is that it’s not a true representation of a businesses reputation. As it stands now I have 6 positive reviews, 2 negative reviews and 6 positive reviews in the filter. They claim it’s all automated and I really wouldn’t be surprised if they did have a computer program running this with just a couple people overseeing it. There is no one you can talk to about it at Yelp.

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  • maxwell_street said:

    Whether or not Yelp is manipulating reviews (and a recent court decision says they can, legally), the problem still remains that so many reviews are fake. It doesn’t matter if they’re positive or negative.

    I own a food truck, and we started using a private feedback system (OwnerListens), so we get most of the customer comments to us, and we can respond to them before people go online. It helps our customer service and Yelp reviews.

    -Maxwell St. Food Truck

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