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Yelp 'pay to play' pitch makes shops scream for help

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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

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.

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