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The Yelp Scam


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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