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Yelp (half-)answers 'Extortion 2.0' claim

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In an effort to deflect criticism of its business model - which one paper has called 'Extortion 2.0' - Yelp has added a public forum to its new-age city guide where business owners can publicly respond to reviews from the site's hipper-than-thou users.

As we reported in August, several San Francisco Bay Area business owners 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 in mid-February, a Bay Area newspaper - The East Bay Express - published a lengthy expose in which several additional business make much the same claim.

Yelp bills itself as a place where "real people" write "real reviews" of restaurants, bars, shops, and other local businesses.

The East Bay story - "Yelp and the Business of Extortion 2.0" - quotes a former Yelp contractor with ties to several of the company's sales reps. The sales reps told the contractor that in order to land advertising, they had promised businesses that their negative reviews would be made less prominent. "It's not illegal or unethical," these sales reps allegedly told the contractor. "We're just helping the little guy. It doesn't hurt them, it benefits them."

Yelp denies that it has ever moved negatives reviews. But it has yet to deny that sales reps made the offer.

In all likelihood, the East Bay piece would have gone largely unnoticed by even the local tech press, but with Streisandian hubris, Yelp chief executive Jeremy Stoppleman promptly tossed up a blog post questioning the journalistic integrity of the story's author. The tale soon showed up everywhere from PC World to The New York Times.

Unwilling to actually respond to claims about his sales reps, Stoppleman has instead launched a public forum where local businesses can answer their online critics. Part of the issue is that businesses have felt powerless to answer lingering reviews they find unfair. But the other part is that Yelp has shamelessly exploited such anxiety.

Word of the new forum leaked out a few weeks back when Yelp sent an email to certain "elite" members of its restaurant review cult. And when Stoppleman made the official announcement on the Yelp blog, he called the new forum "highly anticipated."

"Last night, we rolled out a highly anticipated feature that allows business owners to publicly comment on their reviews," he wrote. "Already, we've seen a number of sharp-eyed businesses make good use of this new functionality to provide additional context around specific reviews for the benefit of consumers and yelpers alike."

The hope is that Stoppleman has also had a chat with his sales staff. But we wouldn't be surprised if the hubris continues. ®

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