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The Yelp Scam

[ 52 ] January 19, 2012 |

In theory, Yelp is a great thing. People can write reviews, people can read reviews, choose where to go. But like everything, real life is more complicated. The way I figure it, review writers can mostly be reduced to 3 categories: a) people who like to review things and treat things fairly, b) people who love something and are excited to review it, c) people who are motivated to review by a bad experience. It’s a democracy of the motivated, but it also requires reading between the lines. Is that restaurant not good, or did 2 people give it 1 star because it didn’t have enough vegan options?

Restaurants (other places too but I’m focusing on restaurants here) need quality reviews for success. This is even more so today when people are making dining decisions based on Yelp reviews. So there’s also a tremendous opportunity to take advantage of these restaurants. And Yelp is filling this gap:

During interviews with dozens of business owners over a span of several months, six people told this newspaper that Yelp sales representatives promised to move or remove negative reviews if their business would advertise. In another six instances, positive reviews disappeared — or negative ones appeared — after owners declined to advertise.

Because they were often asked to advertise soon after receiving negative reviews, many of these business owners believe Yelp employees use such reviews as sales leads. Several, including John, even suspect Yelp employees of writing them. Indeed, Yelp does pay some employees to write reviews of businesses that are solicited for advertising. And in at least one documented instance, a business owner who refused to advertise subsequently received a negative review from a Yelp employee.

Many business owners, like John, feel so threatened by Yelp’s power to harm their business that they declined to be interviewed unless their identities were concealed. (John is not the restaurant owner’s real name.) Several business owners likened Yelp to the Mafia, and one said she feared its retaliation. “Every time I had a sales person call me and I said, ‘Sorry, it doesn’t make sense for me to do this,’ … then all of a sudden reviews start disappearing.” To these mom-and-pop business owners, Yelp’s sales tactics are coercive, unethical, and, possibly, illegal.

It’s hard to say whether this is a policy developed at the top of Yelp headquarters or whether individual workers with access to the reviews have figured out a way to make a buck. The story’s lead-in speaks of a person calling a restaurant owner and offering to monitor his reviews–for a mere $299 a month.

Regardless of the particulars of that tale, and it is a tale that many business owners confirm with their own, there is much of the sketchy in Yelp’s business model. How to make money off the internet is always a legitimate question. Yelp seems to be coming up with a viable answer: extortion.

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  1. Hob says:

    FYI, that article is a couple years old. There’s no reason to think anything’s changed since then, but it’s not really “seems to be coming up with” any more.

    What bugs me the most about review sites is that they’ve made it nearly impossible to find any reviewable business’s *own* website– the first zillion results of a web search are always Yelp or similar things.

    • fsm says:

      I love yelp but always suspected something untoward was going on.

      Hob, one option is to just click on the yelp review and you will usually find the OWS (original website) right there at the top of the yelp review.

      • Craigo says:

        Or put a – in front any term you don’t want your search to hit on.

        • Hob says:

          fsm: In my experience they’ve had the website link there less than half of the time. And it also bugs me to have to give Yelp pageviews simply because they gamed the search engine so well.

          Craigo: What term would you use? Yelp? Then you still get a dozen other review sites. Have you actually tried this lately?

  2. Aaron says:

    The way I figure it, review writers can mostly be reduced to 3 categories…

    Two more categories that are important:

    4. Reviewers who work for a competitor, and who want to damage the company’s reputation so that people pick the competitor.

    5. Reviewers who work for the company, and are trying to inflate the “average review” value for the company or bury negative reviews.

    There’s a site that ‘specializes’ in consumer complaints that is notorious for its attempts to shake down stores and service providers that have been negatively reviewed.

  3. Evan says:

    I recently had a bad experience buying a used car from a dealership (not a lemon, all the problems were things the dealership could have fixed, like running out of gas on the way home and the battery dying after the hazards ran for 10 minutes, the radiator being full of water, and them not paying the title transfer fee they said they would, followed by the guy telling me to “piss up a rope” when I asked him if he was going to do anything about it). I wrote up everything that happened in a 1-star review on Yelp, only to find it got hidden, because they thought my well-crafted narrative was spam.

    A website in a position like that has to be run impeccably to be trusted, and after this article and this experience, I’ll definitely check every website available for reviews, in case one of them is on the take.

  4. efgoldman says:

    Nothing new under the sun….
    In the 70s and 80s, the publisher of Boston and other city magazines had an editorial list of restaurants in every issue.
    There was (and probably still is) an absolute 1:1 correlation between restaurants that bought ads, and the ones in the “listings”.
    Only difference now is pixels vs. dead trees.

    • Jeremy says:

      You see that here in Japan with the English language media. The free weekly Metropolis in Tokyo frequently does roundups of restaurants, language schools, spas, etc that always seem to offer full-page ads by those same businesses.

  5. Josh G. says:

    If Yelp is indeed writing reviews and then trying to charge the victims to have them removed, that’s probably a crime: extortion.

    For what it’s worth, I’m willing to believe that this probably isn’t corporate policy. If Yelp’s sales staff is on commission (and almost all sales staffs are), then they have a personal financial incentive to make sales by any means necessary, fair or foul.

    • KadeKo says:

      I’m willing to believe that this probably isn’t corporate policy.

      I’m willing to believe that also, but does it have to be acutal written-rule corporate policy, or is it just a “wink-wink” and “nobody is telling anyone to do this”, but people understand that which needs to be done?

      I would compare it to WalMarts becoming more efficient by forcing employees to work extra hours off the clock. Woebetide the new manager at WalMart #XYZ who stops doing this. Their numbers immediately go down, they are less ‘efficient’, they’ve hit their apex on the WalMart career ladder.

  6. Fraud Guy says:

    But, won’t the free marketplace ensure that businesses stay honest in order to keep customers?

  7. That article is almost three years old. Is there other work to support it? I’d be suprised if in the years since that, if Yelp was really behaving that maliciously, more wouldn’t have come to light…

    • TBogg says:

      I can testify that I was approached by Yelp to advertise for a company I ran and I complained about a bad review taht I didn’t think was realistic. Two days later Yelp called me back to pitch again and – a miracle!- the bad review was gone.

      This was about nine months ago.

  8. JoyfulA says:

    And another category:

    6. “Writers” hired for as little as 50 cents per review.

    I don’t trust any online reviews of products or services since late 2008 to early 2009, when work dried up for me and I was exploring the very depths of the job market.

  9. Ion says:

    Like others have said, that’s an older article, but even if the problems have been solved, you still have the problem that most unpaid reviewers want to either rant or rave. Among my group of friends, it’s more or less taken as read that “Yelpers hate everything,” so the only ratings that mean anything are the really low ones and the really high ones. Ratings in the middle can safely be disregarded. Yelp is pretty much only good for finding out if you’re going to get food poisoning or have an hour-long wait for seating even on a weeknight, and nothing in between.

  10. Froley says:

    It appears that a week after the article came out, several groups filed a lawsuit against Yelp. It was dismissed w/o prejudice in April last year and then in October the court dismissed the re-filed complaint with prejudice. Several articles said that Yelp made changes after the article came out — e.g., getting rid of the favorite review feature, allowing one to see all reviews (including ones previously filtered out), etc. I don’t spend a lot of time on Yelp so I can’t confirm if those changes were made (or if there’s still a lot of potential for abuse).

    The way I use Yelp is similar to the way I use Amazon reviews — if there’s a critical mass (100+ on Yelp, 300+ on Amazon) of positive or negative reviews then I’ll factor those reviews into my decision. That way you can usually discount (if not eliminate) the effect of shills posting reviews.

  11. Aaron says:

    Shorter every post Erik Loomis has ever written: Everything is bad, except labor unions.

  12. Amanda in the South Bay says:

    I too am suspicious as Yelp. I recently worked for about 3 years as a grocery store cashier, helping to pay the bills and survive. People don’t realize that negative reviews can have really bad impacts on the poor people who work at these places and rely on a really small paycheck to survive.

    The thing is, having had my share of customer service, is that a large percent of customer complaints are bullshit. Customers are dumbfucks. Especially rich privileged customers. But that’s another story.

    So yeah, even if Yelp was totally straight and honest, people’s bitching can have really negative impacts for the working poor.

    • Tcaalaw says:

      People don’t realize that negative reviews can have really bad impacts on the poor people who work at these places and rely on a really small paycheck to survive.

      I’m sorry, but if I genuinely have a negative experience with a business, am I not supposed to give it a negative review out a sense of charity toward the employees?

      • Aaron says:

        No, see, you must not actually have had a bad experience because you’re a dumbfuck, and probably rich and privileged. Any complaint you might have is automatically delegitimized.

        • Hob says:

          Aaron, it sounds like you’re here mostly just to pick fights, but in case you’re not: think back to the last job you had that involved dealing with customers and having to be nice to them. Think of the stupidest complaint anyone ever had about you. Now think how many more complaints there would be if they didn’t have to say them out loud, but could just stick them on your back anonymously, because they didn’t like your face, or they had a bad day, or because it’s fun.

          “Customers are dumbfucks” is an exaggeration, but that doesn’t really matter since it only takes a few dumbfucks (or trolls) to make life unpleasant.

          • Aaron says:

            Bad customers exist, there’s no doubt about it. But claiming that you shouldn’t give poor reviews to businesses where you have legitimately received bad service is, I think, highly misguided. Bad businesses should go out of business, and we have unemployment insurance to make sure people don’t fall through the cracks. It’s unfortunate that people who work at these businesses and may have no fault in these bad practices may lose their jobs, but it’s still no reason to keep bad businesses around.

            Also, I should point out that the tone I was responding to and the language I was mimicking is drawn directly from the OP.

  13. Jager says:

    Forwarded this post to Mrs J. Here’s her reply:

    Right, they have not been kind to us and I get the phone calls from their corporate office to “advertise” or have them monitor – they are in a multi million dollar lawsuit – they are scammers no question

  14. There’s yet another kind of Yelp reviewer, the contrarian, someone who will see a whole bunch of really positive reviews of a place, and just have to balance things out a bit by writing a nasty “review”. There are bad reviews on Yelp I have read of restaurants, where it’s obvious the “reviewer” had never set foot in the place.

  15. Rani Kaye says:

    In LA one yelp member that is not only actively posting business reviews but her family OWNS a business listed on yelp. She has posted NEGATIVE reviews about close by competing business.

  16. Ha ha the complaints are miles high at this point, damn i can’t wait until they go down, along with many others

  17. joel says:

    Yelp’s Achilles’ heel is the fact that it filters some reviews and not others, and refuses to disclose its methods for doing so.

    A good lawyer (operative word: ‘good’) would have no difficulty defeating Yelp in a court of law (I’d recommend a jury trial, for obvious reasons).

  18. [...] Regardless of the particulars of that tale, and it is a tale that many business owners confirm with their own, there is much of the sketchy in Yelp’s business model. How to make money off the internet is always a legitimate question. Yelp seems to be coming up with a viable answer: extortion. Article Source: http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2012/01/the-yelp-scam [...]

  19. paul says:

    I am a small business owner with 1 negative review and 17 filtered reviews. Yelp tells me that they are filtered because the 17 good ones came within a short period of time so they are filtered out because of the concern of shrills. Their solution? If I advertise on Yelp then I will get more reviews. Makes sense to me. Right!! They are crooks by any legal measure.

  20. chau says:

    I stunt when I went to check on my web site that was currently being worked on. I Found 1 review for my company that was negative in everyway. So I looked back at the timeline and remember that I had a call from a rep at yelp. He asked for my name and all and ask if I would like to expand my company I was in a hurry and told him I wasn’t interested in advertising and that we are a refferal based company he sounded upset. So I hung up and sure enough the comment pop up I’m curious if I sign up with them now if they can make it magicly dissapear as it magicly appear. Any thoughs

  21. JenniferP says:

    I cringe every time I get an email notification from Yelp saying I have received a new review? I almost want to pour myself a stiff drink before I log in. Why? Because 9 times out of 10, if the review is good (4 or 5 Stars) it ends up on my Filtered page. In contrast, if the review is a 1 or 2 star, it’s almost guaranteed to end up on the main review page.

    I myself have reached out to others affected by Yelp’s tyrany. Their stories vary, but the end result is always the same….Yelp’s review filter is biased! Bad reviews stay, good go away. I came across a company that had roughly 35 posted reviews, mostly 1-3 stars, a few 4, and one 5 star. They had 167 Filtered Reviews! Guess what, over 90% were 5 stars, and there were only 4, I repeat 4, one star reviews.

    Please join my fight against yelp. Check out http://www.facebook.com/yelpisafraud and “Like” the page if you agree.

    If we can get enough people on board, one of two things will hopefully happen. 1)Yelp will take notice and do something. Although I’m not holding my breath on that one. 2)More people will see what a scam yelp is, and stop using it. If people do not use yelp, there will be no more yelp.

  22. Pete says:

    I was basically harassed and pressured into a YELP contract, promising me I would see positive results ( and positive reviews) as soon as my ad went live. I had 4 positive 5 star reviews (non solicited) my long time yelpers. ALL four reviews were “Filtered” out.
    I really couldn’t afford the $500.00 per month fee at this time and was able to cancel the contract before it started, but there was a lot of high pressure tag teaming dome to get me to stay with the “plan”.
    Literally, the same day I called to confirm I cancelled, 2 new Yelpers who just signed on SPAMMED my listing with negative reviews, and I now have 1 star!
    The worse thing is I am getting SPAMMED on all of my other business web listings. I have been attacked with at least 100 negative reviews in the last 5 days.
    These people are criminals, nothing less. Someone needs to do something about it.
    I can’t believe Apple signed a iphone agreement with YELP for the SIRI search results for business listings.
    If anyone knows how to file a suit against these thugs, let me know, i’ll supply all the information I have.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Yelp plain is simple are the kids who were little snitches in school

  24. Pupkin says:

    YELP creators – are genius !
    They created way to make millions of dollars without any responsibility.
    If you think that is fraud – blame not YELP creators, but special FILTER.
    What is the filter ? Its secret formula by which negative or positive reviews
    disappear, depends for somebody’s interest. So, Yelp creators NOT responsible
    of filter decision. How is filter work ? Its secret.

    Even, if Yelp stop advertising – current filter do not make any sense.

    Statistically for each 100 happy visitors must be one unhappy.
    Statistically from 100 happy people only 5 make positive article, but
    from 1 unhappy person we have 1 negative article.
    py people only 5 make positive article, but
    from 1 unhappy person we have 1 negative article.

    I am agree that it make sense to design filter to sort legitimate
    article to filter out friends, neighbors, relatives, competitors.
    If somebody will create such filter, I think, he will deserve Nobel Price.

    But Filter, designed by Yelp working in opposite direction. Filter
    Formula kept in secret, that nobody can challenge it, but result is
    in opposite direction.

    After filtering out
    5 Legitimate positive articles, on my page I have :

    3 positive NOT legitimate articles from my daughter, son in law, and friend.
    1 negative NOT legitimate article from competitor.
    1 negative legitimate article from unhappy person.

    Its a prove that filter do not work. Its not a filter. It must be put
    off until somebody invent real filter.

    YELP must be closed immediately.
    They ruins more and more businesses every day

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  30. [...] Originally Posted by Stylo I eat out probably 1-2 nights a week and I try not to stick to the same places. I did not eat out much in the Danbury area since the choices were more limited to chains. I did like some Newtown restaurants quite a bit, and a couple in Bethel. I don't know the Hartford area scene very well at all. Don't know where you got that idea. I like Milford's scene (and other similar sized towns like West Hartford, Fairfield) because it's a good mix of a few high-end options, ethnic food, casual eateries, etc. Ridgefield for me lacks in ethnic (with the exception of Gyro and Thali) and casual options. It's a fine town otherwise, but I wouldn't say I weigh dining overly heavily in assessing a town. That's just where the thread has gone. I just don't trust Zagat as much as Yelp, Foursquare, et al. Places like Blue Lemon get a 24 and I've had 2 of the worst "fine dining" meals of my life there. It gets a 3.5 star rating on Yelp, which I feel is more accurate. Luckily one was expensed with work and other was a gift card so I didn't have to pay. You had me until you offered up Yelp. Yelp is a freaking scam! Their entire business model is based on extortion—- business owners can pay Yelp or purchase advertise with Yelp to hide negative reviews. Complete joke. http://www.eastbayexpress.com/oaklan…nt?oid=1176635 The Yelp Scam – Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money [...]

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