The web is abuzz right now about the East Bay Express's vicious takedown of Yelp, the somewhat controversial website that lets regular people post reviews about restaurants, dentists, and pretty much any other kind of business.
The charge: Yelp, which makes money by selling ads to businesses it covers, is punishing companies that do not buy ads by artificially elevating bad reviews. The article trumpets this as "Extortion 2.0" and explains it thusly:
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.
This sounds pretty bad—and lots of bloggers arehoppingmad. After all, Yelp is supposed to be about giving power back to consumers and rewarding companies that provide quality products and services. Yelp's ads are supposed to work pretty transparently. For a few hundred bucks, you get to pick a review that will be listed at the top of your Yelp page as your business's "favorite review" and you get listed at the top of the search page as a "sponsored result". This seems fine, but if Yelp is actively manipulating other reviews and using this as leverage to sell ads, that would be ethically questionable—or as the article would have it, "coercive, unethical, and, possibly, illegal."
Like I said, bad. But, take a look at the article's sourcing and the charges seem a lot less convincing. The Express talked to one former Yelp contractor who is quoted anonymously. Worse, the guy seems to own a restaurant now. (Is that a conflict of interest? Uh, yes.) Moreover, the Express found one—count em!—case in which a company that did not advertise was subsequently given a bad review by a Yelp employee. Almost all the evidence comes as testimony from 12 angry business owners—some of them also quoted anonymously—who say they observed changes to their Yelp listings after receiving calls from Yelp sales reps.
I'm sorry but that ain't enough. Yelp listings, like Google search results, change regularly. Sometimes negative reviews move up, sometimes they move down. A simple correlation does not mean that anything nefarious is going on. It just means that businesses that get bad reviews generally get angry about those bad reviews. It also doesn't seem totally crazy that one of Yelp's 200 employees might happen to dislike an establishment that also got a sales call.
So I'm not convinced there's anything untoward happening. I've always found Yelp's reviews pretty accurate. But let's see if more people start coming out of the woodwork with real examples of abuse. Until that happens all this story proves is something we've always known: restaurants like reviews, as long as they're good.
Last updated: Feb 19, 2009
Senior contributing writer MAX CHAFKIN has profiled companies such as Yelp, Zappos, Twitter,
Threadless, and Tesla for the magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. @chafkin