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

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Personal Attacks

If it's nasty enough, a single negative review can seriously damage a small business. Kellinger, Deep Fried, and our anonymous San Francisco business owner - we'll call her Miss Lonelyhearts - were all hit by personal attacks that bordered on the slanderous. Kellinger and her staff were dubbed "racist". Deep Fried was hit with comments about his ethnicity. And Miss Lonelyhearts received an attack that focused on her physical disabilities.

Officially, Yelp does not allow personal attacks. "Feel free to explain your bad experience with a salesman," the site reads, "but Yelp's not the place for vicious attacks or name calling." And you can "flag" such reviews, urging Yelp to take them down. There's an on-site tool that lets you send emails to Yelp customer service reps and alert them to questionable content.

But Kellinger, Deep Fried, and Miss Lonleyhearts all complain that those blatant personal attacks were not removed from their Yelp pages. And this caused no small amount of anxiety for these small business owners.

But even then, all three repeatedly declined advertising agreements.

Kellinger, however, took matters into her own hands, asking longtime customers and friends to post positive reviews to her site. Yelp then removed some of these reviews, accusing Kellinger's Razzberry Lips of gaming the system.

Yelp director of communications Stephanie Ichinose accuses Mary Seaton's Sofa Outlet of much the same behavior, saying that both businesses are biased against the site because positive reviews were taken down. "They're creating fake accounts and writing shill reviews of their own business," Ichinose said. "They were both trying to game the system. If they weren't, their stories would be more legitimate."

Kellinger and Seaton acknowledge they drove the positive reviews. But they say this was their only means of fighting back. Kellinger wouldn't pay an advertising fee. And Seaton believes she was fooled into paying a fee that ultimately did her no good.

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"Real People. Real Reviews."

Economics 2.0

For nearly four years, an army of clever marketers has trumpeted that Web 2.0 moniker. "User-generated content," the voices keep saying, will change the world as we know it.

In a way, they're right. There's no arguing with the runaway popularity of sites like YouTube, Flickr, MySpace, Yelp, and so many others. But Web 2.0 is haunted by the same question that brought down what we'll reluctantly call Web 1.0: How will all these sites make their money?

Clicks don't always mean cash. User-generated content may be wildly popular, but that doesn't mean it's wildly lucrative.

Yelp may or may not be a big money maker. But the site's business model is proof that Web 2.0 is only half a proposition. It may change the world. But it doesn't change internet economics.

Unlike Google's or Yahoo!'s, Yelp sales are dependent on old fashioned cold calls to people who may or may not understand how the internet works. At the very least, this is a tough way to make online money. At worst, it could undermine a site's reason for being.

Have you received a similar sales pitch from Yelp? If so, you can contact us privately here ®

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