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Yelp deflects 'Extortion 2.0' claim

Astroturfers build ethical minefield

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Yelp continues to face questions over the ethics of its new-age city guide, billed as a place where "real people" write "real reviews" of restaurants, bars, shops, and other local businesses.

And it continues to evade those questions.

As we reported in August, several San Francisco Bay Area businesses have told The Reg that Yelp sales reps have offered to "push bad reviews to the bottom" of their Yelp pages if they paid to advertise on the site. And now, an area newspaper - The East Bay Express - has published a feature-length expose in which several additional businesses make the same claim.

Yelp is headquartered in downtown San Francisco, just north of Silicon Valley, and in recent years, this Web 2.0 posterchild has achieved cult-like status among the Bay Area hip net set.

Meanwhile, the site is up and running in several other American cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. And last month, it leapt across the Atlantic to the UK. Considering Yelp's rather conspicuous appearance in a recent iPhone TV ad - and on the walls of Apple retail stores - there's little doubt the company has its sights set on worldwide city-guide domination.

With yesterday's story - "Yelp and the Business of Extortion 2.0" - The East Bay Express also quotes a former Yelp contract employee who says several sales reps told him that they promised businesses they'd make negative reviews less prominent in order to land advertising. "It's not illegal or unethical," these sales reps allegedly told the contracter. "We're just helping the little guy. It doesn't hurt them, it benefits them."

Overly quick to defend his baby - as always - Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman responded to the story with a post to the official Yelp blog. "Today the East Bay Express ran a lengthy story that accuses Yelp of manipulating review order for money," he wrote. "As we've said many-a-time, we do not do this."

But that's not the issue. The issue is whether Yelp sales reps have attempted to grab ad dollars by offering to manipulate review order. What Stoppelman refuses to discuss - he has not responded to a request for comment today - is that the site is constructed in such a way as to allow sales reps to easily prey on the fears of local businesses.

If you advertise with the company, you can move a review of your choosing to the top of your Yelp page - above any negative reviews. Stoppelman will tell you this review is clearly marked, but the average user may not notice.

At the very least, this hedges the company's ostensible dedication to "user-generated content." At worst, it gives sales reps a way of using the (quite natural) fear that infects local businesses when they receive negative reviews. Sales reps can target businesses that have negative reviews lingering at the top of their pages, and if they say the company will shift those negative reviews for ad dollars, they aren't that far from the truth.

What's more, Yelp's default review sort isn't chronological. Reviews rise and fall based on how many "votes" they get from Yelpers at large. So, it's impossible for businesses to tell whether reviews are shifted by foul means or fair.

Stoppelman says Yelp does not shift negative reviews. But in multiple conversations with The Reg, he has yet to deny that the offer has been made. The offer alone is the problem. It's not just that Yelp is exploiting the fears of small businesses. If Yelp doesn't "push reviews to the bottom of the page" in exchange for ad dollars, then sales reps may be pitching services the company doesn't offer.

All this is compounded by that fact that Yelp pays people to write reviews when launching in new locations. The site that bills itself as a place where "real people" write "real reviews" is built on astroturf.

With his blog post, Jeremy Stoppelman calls out the East Bay reporter by name - in his headline - and then goes on to question her journalistic integrity because some (but not all) of her sources are anonymous. That's a little much from a company that makes its money straddling the ethical line. ®

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