Editor's note: This post has been updated to include further comment from Yelp and to clarify the recent Appeals Court decision.
When Bay Area restaurant Botto Bistro wanted to tell Yelp the site could take its reviews and shove it, customers were all too happy to help. As part of Botto's "Hate us on Yelp" campaign, they wrote tongue-in-cheek reviews--"the restaurant is way too clean"--and doled out countless one-star ratings in order to drag the overall rating down. In return, they received 25 percent discounts (which the restaurant has since discontinued).
Botto launched the campaign to prove it could be the worst-reviewed business on Yelp and still succeed. From a publicity standpoint, it was a savvy move--less than a week ago Botto Bistro had 148 reviews; now it has 1,082.
But the stunt also served to underscore the frustrations small business owners have with the site. One such frustration? Yelp's alleged ability to manipulate rankings in exchange for advertising. This month San Francisco's Ninth Circuit Appeals Court ruled that Yelp has the legal right to set its advertising prices and adjust its ratings--which might amount to "hard bargaining" but not extortion. Chef and co-owner Davide Cerretini told the blog Grub Street he respects the concept of Yelp, "but the blackmailing thing is ferocious," he claimed. He says it's high time the reviews site become much more transparent.
A Push for Transparency
In the past, Yelp has been accused of extortion--removing bad reviews in return for paid sponsorships. VP of corporate communications and government relations Vince Sollitto, rejected these claims in an email interview with Inc. "It's simply not true. Reviews and advertising are not connected. Yelp's review recommendation software does not reward advertisers or punish businesses that don't advertise," he wrote. "An independent study by Harvard Business School bears this out, as does the dismissal of every court case making this allegation for lack of credible evidence."
Businesses have also reported dealing with pushy telemarketers from the company. Botto Bistro claims it received several of those calls, to the point where Yelp was calling them "30 times a week, sometimes five times a day," Cerretini told Ars Technica. When he finally agreed to work with them, "it was just [so they would] stop calling me. We did it for six months and then they kept calling."
James McQuivey, an analyst with Forrester, said this strategy isn't unheard of--years ago, Groupon received similar press for its pushy sales representatives. Yelp has denied its employees use this tactic.
The trouble is, "when you're an Internet business, transparency is going to be thrust upon you whether you want it or not," McQuivey said. How startups embrace--or ignore--the call for transparency is key. Home rental site Airbnb has been upfront about the risks and challenges of being a host but still continues to grow. Even Google lets Internet users know which keyword manipulations it will block, says McQuivey. "Yelp needs to be the same way."
One thing Yelp could do--short of improving how it educates non-customers--is allow the community to rate each other, something eBay pioneered over a decade ago. In giving power back to users, businesses would have more incentive to improve and in turn, earn reviews they deserve. Customers would appreciate knowing which users to trust and who to ignore.
To McQuivey's mind, the Botto Bistro stunt was a long time coming. "Yelp is getting enough complaints," he says. "It's really time to raise the level of transparency and utility for everyone involved."
For now, Yelp relies on its community to flag reviews that violate its Term of Service, one feature it does have in place.