Has Yelp Been Extorting Businesses?

Science & Tech / Web Culture

Has Yelp Been Extorting Businesses?

By: Danielle Thillet

Online reviews have changed the way we interact in the consumer space. From what we watch, to where we eat, to what karaoke bar we visit, the opinions of previous, anonymous patrons weighs very heavily on our decision making. Bad online reviews can often make or break businesses. Yelp, one of the leaders in online reviews, is all too aware of this fact, and that imbalance of power is the crux of a series of extortion allegations.

Since it’s founding in 2004, Yelp has positioned itself as a trusted source for peer-reviewed experiences at local businesses. Search for new places in your area by a number of criteria (including price), get recommendations, even see pictures of the interior space — it certainly is a useful resource for its 138 million monthly visitors. Users can leave reviews of one to five stars, and a written explanation. Others can vote reviews up or down based on their helpfulness. And if you’ve ever seen a “People Love Us on Yelp” sticker in a business’s window (a special commendation from the site), you’ve probably felt more confident walking in, both that you’d have a great experience, and that the owners will really appreciate you giving them five stars once you leave.

But dozens of small business owners have filed lawsuits against the website on counts of extortion, claiming that positive reviewers were removed, or negative ones added or placed closer to the top of the page, if they refused to pay for a premium account or advertising. Last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected one such suit saying even if Yelp did manipulate site content, it doesn’t legally constitute extortion. Yelp claims that it is possible for some reviews to be automatically deleted by it’s top-secret algorithm, if it violated terms of service or seemed to be illegitimate — say, from a fake account. That would be all well and good, if there were an equal amount of business owners, who were also paid advertisers, complaining about positive reviews disappearing, or previously-removed negative ones reemerging. So far, it seems like the only ones being hurt, are the ones who won’t pay. The mafia analogy that has be floating around about the accusations seems pretty on point. But if it’s not extortion — then what is it?

One California restaurant doesn’t seem to fear negative reviews one way or another. In fact, it welcomes them! Botto Bistro in Richmond, CA offered discounted meals for customers to leave one-star reviews in a humorous protest of the site’s practices. Many complied with tongue-in-cheek accounts, like complaining about not being able to order Kung Pao chicken in an Italian restaurant, while others were sincerely unsatisfied. Some, in their reviews, complained that their promotion was inherently breaking the system. And actually, they’re right.

 

Whether or not you believe that Yelp manipulates its data (and its users and advertisers), it only has as much influence as you allow it to have. Reviews are helpful, but nothing beats actually walking inside of an establishment and checking it out for yourself. Worst case scenario: you have an awful time, but a great story to pass along.

[Pic via Flickr - Michael Dorausch]

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