Yelp 'pay to play' pitch makes shops scream for help
User generated discontent
When it debuted in July of 2004, Yelp reinvented the notion of online city guides, giving "real people" the power to write "real reviews." For many, it represents the best of something called Web 2.0, a site built by you and me and everyone else. But in its struggle to turn clicks into cash, the San Francisco startup has been known to hedge this egalitarian ideal, playing games with the very concept that made it so popular.
At least some of Yelp's sales staff hope to make money by offering to hide what you and I have to say.
Over the last year, five San Francisco Bay Area businesses have told The Register that the company has offered to "push bad reviews to the bottom" of their Yelp pages if they paid to advertise on the site.
One restaurant owner was contacted "five or six" times, and each time, the Yelp sales rep insisted that if he forked over $6,000 a year for "sponsored link" status, the site would suppress user posts that put his restaurant in a less-than-positive light.
"They told me I had 60 reviews on my [Yelp] page," said the owner, who requested anonymity, fearing repercussions from Yelp's famously outspoken users. "They told me 'No one is going to read all 60. They're only going to read the first few.'"
In late September, when we first spoke to Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman about this issue, he denied that the company hides reviews. "I think [these business owners] are mis-characterizing what's going on," he said. "There is no bumping of reviews."
But he didn't rule out the possibility that an offer was made. "There is a remote chance that we have some sort of rogue sales person, but I think that it's more likely it's just a business owner that's pissed off about reviews on his page."
The Reg can confirm, however, that multiple sales reps have made the offer to multiple businesses, and some pitches occurred in recent months, well after our initial interview with Stoppelman. Earlier this month, a local San Francisco TV station aired a story on two of these businesses. Selena Kellinger, who runs a San Jose, California business called Razzberry Lips, and Mary Seaton, owner of the Soft Outlet in San Manteo, are among those who told us they too received Yelp's anti-Web 2.0 offer.
"I didn't receive a phone call from Yelp until I received a negative review," Seaton said. "A week after I received a negative review, a sales person contacted me and she said...'We noticed that you have some very positive reviews. We can push your negative reviews to the bottom, so that your positive reviews will come to the top.'"
Yes, Yelp continues to deny these claims. "It's just not true," Stoppelman told us this week. "I challenge you to find any advertiser who's had their negative reviews pushed to the bottom."
Indeed, many advertisers have told The Reg that Yelp does not suppress their bad reviews. This includes Mary Seaton, who forked over $1750 before realizing that her sales rep wouldn't do such a thing.
"Real People. Real Reviews"
Cooked up by PayPal co-founder Max Levchin's internet incubator, MRL Ventures, and headed by two former PayPal golden boys, Stoppelman and Russel Simmons, Yelp brings the Web 2.0 ethos to so-called local search.
Like Citysearch, Yelp is an online guide to stuff in your particular town - only the reviews are written by anyone who wants to write them, not by a staff of editors. Serving dozens of cities across the US, Yelp creates mini-web pages for all sorts of local operations, from restaurants and shops to schools and churches, and the user-at-large is free to post opinions on any of them.
Clearly, there's a fair number of internet mavens who enjoy using this user-generated extravaganza - particularly in the Bay Area. Last year, during his keynote at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco, Hitwise general manager Bill Tancer said that Yelp was among the new-age start-ups likely to follow YouTube and Flickr into the internet stratosphere.
Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman
"These sites are ones that attract a certain kind of user and have the best chance of crossing the chasm between early adopters and the mainstream media," he said, citing the behavior of over 25 million users across the web.
But if you're running a business, Yelp can be a minefield. Famously, the San Francisco Chronicle once served up a piece about restaurants who worry their success is now controlled by overly angry reviewers who don't know what they're talking about - and The Reg has heard much the same story from countless other businesses over the past several months. In short, Yelp has them scared.
Some have even said that the company is attempting to leverage this fear as it recruits advertisers.
Next page: Deep Fried
Okay, first of all
almost no-one looks for reviews before they go to a shop or restaurant. For products: quite likely. For shops IN THE LOCAL AREA: no.
Chances are they have already shopped there before anyway..
A company's "internet reputation" is hardly worth worrying about.
I guess the majority ARE idiots, judging by Amazon etc.
"I love this book, it was so great, you should go buy it. i'm only on page 4 but i can tell it's going to be sooo awesome!!11" or "This treadmill really works, I lost 2lbs in 2 days/a year."
There's a difference between a review which says "I liked it , the food was good" or "this restaurant is terrible , I don't know how it even stays in business" compared to ACTUAL REVIEWS which say stuff like "I liked it, there was a wide range of foods to choose from, the restaurant was airy, had a good view overlooking the river, the staff were friendly and the menu points out meals suitable for vegans and celiacs"
I don't see the problem. If they lie, they can (should) not only be able to get the review removed from the site, but the person could be in trouble legally.
"The waiter spat in my soup and tripped me on the way to the bathroom"
What could possibly make a restaurant look so bad? (that wouldn't be disregarded as someone who is picky/has different taste/is a troll)
Also, people don't generally read the first few reviews and think everything is kosher. People specifically look for bad reviews, and read them to see what the problem was with the place they plan to visit/item they plan to buy. Unless the bad reviews are literally hidden somewhere, all people need to do is click a few times or scroll down a bit.
I guess this will be the end of Yelp. But surely it's common knowledge that places will be submitting fake reviews for their own company, and possibly their competitors? Although less common knowledge that review sites will be blackmailing people.....
Obviously someone should have recorded themselves being propositioned, as this whole story is nothing without proof of anything.
Anti-yelp strategies anyone ???
So far I've seen tons of business owners complain about the site, but not a single article provides useful anti-yelp strategies. My company has been yelped with many negative, completely ridiculous reviews, and I feel that paying $500 a month for a questionable service is extortion.
This reads like mafia style standover tactics. "You cooperate and come up with the protection cash, we don't burn down your business or break your legs."
Where is the accountability with this yeIp? Looks like this web2 stuff needs regulations made for it so it can be overseen, audited etc so business can trust it. I am sure business would like to able to challenge reviews that seem malicious. It would good to see sites like yeIp stand behind the reviews and reviewers they allow and be prepared to compensate businesses that can be proved to damaged by yeIp.
Regulation might make might a marginal business model like web2 unprofitable at all, which some people might see as a good thing, especially yeIp victims.