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

User generated discontent

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The Denial

Business owners are so worried about bad Yelp karma, many won't even discuss the site with a reporter. Still, the bad-review issue has made its way to the public before via the Yelp Forums:

"I was talking to a friend the other day and they told me that if a business pays yelp.com some $$, then yelp will sort the reviews for that business w/ the better reviews on top," a user writes. "I'm hoping this isn't true, right?!"

With another post, a Yelp developer denies the claim. But he explained that the company allows advertisers to push one good review to the top of their pages:

"We do not change the ordering of all reviews for a business, advertiser or not. How do I know? I wrote the code the [sic] orders the review on our business pages. For advertisers, we do allow them to call out a specific review (it changes from time to time to keep the page fresh), but it's in a labeled box. There is no sorting changes to the rest of the reviews, and there is no removal of reviews unless they violate the [Terms of Service], for which the same rules apply to both advertisers and regular businesses."

Stoppelman told us much the same thing. The business owners we talked to "mis-characterize that one review on top," he said.

If you visit the page of a paid advertiser, you can see that that one review has indeed been pulled to the top. But, as it stands, these review "call-outs" are not "in a labeled box." Yelp simply puts a strip above the review that says "One of [Insert Business Here]'s Favorite Reviews" and "This business is a Yelp sponsor."

Nonetheless, the call-outs are labeled.

Questionable Sort

Stoppelman insists that Yelp's advertising programs are "biased towards the consumer" - not the advertiser. "We always tie a business to its reputation," he said. "We don't accept advertisers who are below a certain rating threshold." That threshold, he added, is a rating of 3.5.

"We want to help great businesses succeed. If you've got some issues with your business, we can't help you until you rectify them," Stoppelman continued. He insists that if a business has low Yelp ratings, it "has issues," and he's adamant that the company has no interest in dealing with those issues.

Mary Seaton of Sofa Outlet

Mary Seaton at the Sofa Outlet

The idea is that businesses should deal with their own poor reviews, and if those reviews are less than accurate, another reviewer will soon weigh in with the truth. "You have to start thinking constructively, say 'How can I address this issue - if one exists?'" Stoppelman said, referring to business owners. "And if it doesn't, a new customer will eventually walk in the door, and they'll post a new review that will move you in a positive direction."

But old reviews have a way of lingering on Yelp pages. For many who visit Yelp, the assumption is that the reviews are chronological. But they're not.

You can re-sort the reviews by date, but the default sort works a bit differently. Until last fall, it was labeled as a "Relevance" sort. Now, it reads "Recent+Votes." This sort takes into account the number of "votes" that a review receives. The Yelp ethos involves people voting on whether various items are "useful," "funny," or "cool".

Stoppelman told us that the sort gives a significant amount of weight to votes, so that reviews with high vote totals are likely to linger towards the top of the page. "There's a mathematical formula we use - I don't know it off the top of my head - but it's basically factoring time along with how much voting has happened on that review," he said. "There's a fairly quick drop off in the [weight given to the] time factor. Initially, a fresh review is valued more highly than anything else, but then it fades out [if it doesn't receive many votes]."

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