Friday, February 20, 2009

Yelp Accused of Hiding Negative Reviews "For a Fee"

Yelp is back in the news, but this time as a sidebar in a lawsuit filed against one of its users for a negative review. No, this time it's front and center, and accused of asking for kickbacks in exchange for removing negative reviews for a business.

A detailed report by the local San Francisco Bay Area weekly, the East Bay Express, alleges that Yelp sales reps have been calling local businesses, offering to "help" them remove negative reviews from the site. From the story:
"Hi, this is Mike from Yelp," the voice would say. "You've had three hundred visitors to your site this month. You've had a really good response. But you have a few bad ones at the top. I could do something about those."

This wasn't your average sales pitch. At least, not the kind that John, an East Bay restaurateur, was used to. He was familiar with, the popular San Francisco-based web site in which any person can write a review about nearly any business. John's restaurant has more than one hundred reviews, and averages a healthy 3.5-star rating. But when John asked Mike what he could do about his bad reviews, he recalls the sales rep responding: "We can move them. Well, for $299 a month." John couldn't believe what the guy was offering. It seemed wrong.
Naturally, Yelp has fired back immediately, denying the assertions, and stating that the story seems questionable, citing:
  • Heavy reliance on anonymous sources.
  • Reliance on at least one source with serious credibility issues.
  • The accusatory thrust of article is essentially overturned at the very end.
Per the last item, Yelp cites (directly from the article):
Interviews with more than a dozen local business owners suggest that Yelp sales reps may be wording their sales pitches more carefully these days. Owners who were approached by Yelp in recent months said they were told they could choose one positive review that would appear at the top of their page, which would clearly be denoted as a "sponsored review."
Still, according to Yelp's Chief Operating Officer Geoff Donaker, it is (or could) all be a big misunderstanding, quite possibly due to overeager sales reps.
"Do I think that sales reps call are saying, 'We'll move your bad reviews'?" he asked. "No. But I think it could be true — when you get to pick your favorite review and put it to the top, if I said it a little different way, it might sound a little nefarious." Donaker conceded that Yelp could do a better job of training its sales team to be "crystal clear about what you get and don't get."
In fact, Yelp says right in its FAQ that negative reviews will not be removed in such a manner:
Will Yelp remove bad reviews if a business pays for sponsorship?

Absolutely not. Reviews of Yelp sponsors and non-sponsors are treated identically, and any complaints are handled by the same user support team, operating under the same Review Guidelines and Terms of Service.
What do I think? It sounds like Yelp would be harmed more by such fakery than helped, in the long run. Do I think it couldn't happen? Of course I don't. Sales reps are under pressure to make their numbers, so it's quite possible.

In reality, we don't really know. Unless you were one of the involved parties, you couldn't say for sure. It is definitely something that should have crossed people's minds before this, though.

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