Unlike other ratings websites that offer guidance in planning a vacation or buying a car, Yelp cuts straight to the heart of everyday life.
Across much of the globe, Yelp.com has emerged as the go-to website for finding customer reviews of restaurants, dry cleaners and other shops just down the street. The name — synonymous with a squawk of pain — has entered the consumer lexicon as a verb: To Yelp a place is to check it out online, see the latest word about it.
Yelp’s enormous database of reviews, ranging from 5-star raves to 1-star disses, has made it perhaps the most polarizing of the review websites — loved by millions of consumers, many of them active review writers who post regularly on the site, and loathed by significant numbers of business owners.
Among the website’s 108 million monthly visitors are fans like Robert Genta, a 23-year-old Garden Grove, Calif., restaurant worker who frequently looks up reviews on his smartphone and relied on them extensively during a recent eight-day trip to St. Louis and Atlanta.
“That’s pretty much how all our meals were planned,” he said.
Business owners are sharply divided about Yelp. Some appreciate the spotlight afforded by the widely viewed public forum, where obscure boutiques and eateries have gained invaluable exposure. But entrepreneurs with less-than-stellar ratings often complain they have been damaged by malicious, unwarranted bad reviews posted by business rivals and bitter former employees.
Anger over poor reviews has spawned lawsuits against Yelp, including a case now before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that challenges the website’s advertising practices.
The backlash has raised pointed questions about whether review sites — now a multibillion-dollar industry — are capable of being the objective ratings tool they are intended to be, especially when powerful sites like Yelp post reviews written by ordinary people.
Yelp’s executive spokesman, Vince Sollitto, acknowledges that the review site must be on constant guard against ever-more-sophisticated attempts to game the system.
“You’d be surprised at how many business owners … write a 5-star review of their own business,” Sollitto said, “and a 1-star review of their competition.”
Adryenn Ashley, who owns a public-relationships company in Reno, Nev., and runs a website called Yelp-sucks.com, said she has “a list of thousands of businesses that are disgruntled.” For proprietors stung by poor reviews, “there’s no recourse,” Ashley said. “There’s no grand jury.”
Entrepreneurs running small businesses are especially vulnerable to unfair reviews and often feel powerless to rectify them, she said.
Dary Jahromi, the 43-year-old founder of 24-7 Ride, a shuttle and limousine service based in Tustin, Calif., said his company has been the target of an unusual number of negative critiques. Sixteen out of 24 reviews visible on Yelp give 24-7 Ride the lowest possible rating, a single star. What especially troubles Jahromi is that the critics are often so cloaked in anonymity that he cannot tell if they are real people.
A reviewer identified only as “Tina G.” of Studio City, Calif., wrote a vague, two-sentence attack, posted on Sept. 20, that calls the company, “The absolute worst, most embarrassing excuse for a ‘car service’ in the entire world.” A similarly negative review was written by someone whose profile photograph appears to be a patterned rug. Another critic displays a photo of a cat.
To Jahromi, the comments amount to potshots taken by shadow warriors. He said he suspects that rivals are smearing his 4-year-old company. He also said he knows of a former employee who vowed to “crush” the business.
Yelp allows the critical reviews to be posted without verifying any of the critics’ assertions, he said, or divulging the true identities of the writers.
“They’re destroying our character without proving or verifying the source,” Jahromi said. “And they’re capitalizing on this — they’re making money on this.”
Yelp and other review sites have broad protection to post reviews under the 1996 federal Communications Decency Act, a law intended to safeguard freedom of expression on the Internet.
Nine years after its launch, Yelp has outlasted a number of similar review sites formed around the same time and has rapidly gained a global reach, company spokesman Sollitto said. The website operates in 23 nations, and its revenues, which have been climbing by 66 percent annually, are expected to hit $228 million this year.
The company’s headquarters are in San Francisco, in an ivory-colored, 26-story tower that commands a partial view of the Bay Bridge. Seated at a window overlooking the busy financial district south of Market Street, Sollitto insisted that business owners do have ways to deal with negative reviews.
They can respond publicly — by posting rebuttals on Yelp — or privately by sending emails to individual reviewers through the website, seeking to correct the problems that elicited the complaints. Or business owners can flag reviews suspected of being bogus or malicious so that Yelp can investigate whether they should be removed, Sollitto said.
Yelp seeks to filter out fake or biased reviews by means of a complex, automated computer algorithm that has proved highly effective, according to Sollitto. That algorithm is constantly being refined, he said, to stay ahead of scammers. Yelp considers impartial, truthful reviews essential to its success, he said.
“It’s the entire purpose of what we do,” Sollitto said.
Still, Yelp’s primary allegiance is to consumers; the website exists to be a free sounding board where people can share their dining or buying experiences without interference from company owners motivated by their own profits. Generally, Yelp does not edit or remove reviews without a compelling reason to do so, Sollitto said.
The website, however, has to reconcile competing aims. While striving to satisfy consumers with impartial reviews, Yelp derives virtually all of its revenue from businesses that advertise on the website. Those businesses, all eager for favorable exposure, are almost always subject to ongoing reviews on Yelp — as are companies that decline Yelp’s invitations to advertise.
Yelp maintains that it does not take advantage of its powerful position as a review site to heap praise on its advertisers and cast a dimmer light on companies that do not support the website. Neither the content of reviews nor their placement in the search listings is affected by whether a business owner advertises on Yelp, Sollitto said. Advertisers get clearly labeled ads on the website, while all companies — advertisers or not — are treated equally in the review space, the spokesman said.
Some business owners say otherwise. As part of a class-action lawsuit filed in 2010, four named plaintiffs accused Yelp of instilling “fear in businesses that, if they do not purchase advertising, Yelp will manipulate their reviews … so that, for example … positive reviews are ‘removed’ or ‘filtered’ … negative reviews are suddenly posted, sometimes … by Yelp itself … (and) negative reviews, which were previously filtered, are sometimes revealed for reasons unrelated to the automated review filter.”
The case involving plaintiff Cats & Dogs Animal Hospital in in Long Beach, Calif., began late in 2009, according to the lawsuit, when a veterinary manager noticed a negative review that violated the website’s review guidelines. Yelp agreed to remove the review, after which a second critical review appeared.
“Soon after the appearance of these negative reviews, (the hospital) began receiving frequent, high-pressure calls from Yelp sales representatives, who promised to manipulate Cats and Dogs’ Yelp.com listing page in exchange for Cats and Dogs purchasing an advertising subscription,” the suit said. “Yelp would hide negative reviews … or place them lower on the listing page so Internet users ‘won’t see’ them.”
Within a week of the hospital refusing to buy ads, the first negative review, which had been removed for violating the website’s guidelines, reappeared on Yelp, the legal action stated. The author of the second negative review then posted a new review criticizing the doctor who runs the animal clinic.
A dental practice and a furniture store, both in San Francisco, and a construction contractor in Walnut Creek, Calif., also are plaintiffs in the case. Within three days of declining to buy ads, the dental practice lost nine 5-star reviews on Yelp and its overall rating fell from 5 stars to 3, the lawsuit said.
Yelp responded by saying the business owners failed to prove any threat or harm and accusing plaintiffs of seeking “to suppress legitimate — and protected — online consumer commentary about their businesses.” The website’s attorneys addressed the Cats & Dogs complaint by telling the court: “Yelp ‘vigorously denies’ that its sales rep offered the ability to ‘hide negative reviews’ or ‘place them lower on the listing page.’ ”
“Plaintiffs do not (and cannot) point to a single instance of Yelp engaging in any threat of unlawful injury or wrongful use of fear,” Yelp said, “as required to demonstrate extortion or attempted extortion.”
Yelp prevailed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. Judge Edward M. Chen ruled in 2011 that the plaintiffs failed to prove their allegations and that, under federal law, Yelp is protected from responsibility for reviews posted on the website.
Business owners have appealed to the 9th Circuit Court, arguing that they were not allowed to conduct the necessary legal discovery to prove their claims. The Communications Decency Act, which shields websites from liability for third-party opinions posted on them, properly applies only in cases where the website serves as a neutral conveyer of the material, not where the site is accused of manipulating the reviews to exert pressure on other businesses, attorneys said in the appeal.
One legal expert, Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University, points out that the 1996 law — which gives Internet sites greater freedom of speech than is guaranteed under the First Amendment — makes it extremely difficult to beat Yelp in court.
“History is very clear about this,” Goldman said. “There have been multiple lawsuits against Yelp, and those lawsuits have gone nowhere. And it’s unlikely the next round will go anywhere.”
Over the years, Goldman adds, “there have been numerous allegations that Yelp has a carrot-and-stick approach to ad sales: ‘If you advertise, you’re going to get good reviews; if you don’t, you’ll get bad reviews.’ None of those allegations have ever been proven. It’s like the UFO sightings. Where is the proof of cause and effect?”
Jeff Terranova has no proof, but he continues to wonder. After Terranova co-founded the Long Beach Vegan Eatery two years ago, Yelp tried repeatedly to sell him an advertising package for his restaurant.
“They say, ‘There’re benefits to advertising,’ ” Terranova recalled. “ ‘You’ll reach more people. You’ll come up higher in searches over your competitors. Your unfavorable reviews, they won’t disappear, but they won’t come up top when people search for you.’ ”
The 44-year-old entrepreneur said he realized he had no choice about whether his restaurant appeared on Yelp. “You can’t not be part of the game,” he said. “They’re forcing you to participate, and then they’re trying to up-sell you advertising, which doesn’t seem legal to me.”
After he declined to buy ads, Yelp continued to approach him throughout much of 2012, Terranova said. By summer, though, he grew impatient and told one of Yelp’s sales representatives not to call anymore. A review popped up some time later, written by a woman from San Francisco, sharply criticizing the Vegan Eatery, “quoting the wrong prices, the wrong products,” Terranova said. “She lied about a bunch of things. It was the only review she left — ever. I said to Yelp … ‘This is the only review she’s left and there are blatant lies in it.’ A week or two later, (Yelp) said the review stands; they’re not going to remove it.”
Negative reviewers took a toll on him, Terranova said. “Your initial reaction is you want to reach through the computer screen and choke them,” he said.
Due in part, he said, to mediocre reviews and other problems, Terranova closed the restaurant in August and moved back to New York.
Yelp’s Sollitto said that, so far, 42 million reviews have been submitted to the review site. About one-fourth of all reviews are filtered out by the software algorithm as it detects clues of fraud or bias. The algorithm is forever combing through the entire body of material, picking up new information that may cause a posted review to disappear or a filtered review to re-emerge in the main listings.
Inevitably, as new reviews are posted and as old reviews sometimes get hidden, a small percentage of business owners may wrongly infer that Yelp is against them, Sollitto said. Plenty of advertisers have negative reviews, he notes. Some companies that do not advertise get lots of 5-star ratings.
“Conspiracy theories are hard to kill dead,” he said. “If someone does not like something they cannot control or beat, their next course is to denigrate it — de-legitimize it. Attack that website.”
Early in its history, Yelp erased the filtered reviews. Because of public outcry, the website now only hides those reviews, allowing users to see them by clicking on a special link.
“Hopefully, we’re filtering out reviews where businesses have emailed all their best customers and said, ‘Please write me a 5-star — oh, and by the way, the next drink’s on the house if you do,’ ” said Sollitto. “Frankly, the most important method we have of protecting content is our software, the algorithm.”
Opinions vary about the algorithm’s effectiveness. Sollitto cites an instance two years ago in which a company in Texas advertised online for a writer willing to post positive reviews on Yelp, Google, Citysearch and five other websites. A man in Bangladesh responded and agreed to write 200 phony reviews for $100.
Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, which chronicled the case, noted that the bogus reviews subsequently showed up on every site but Yelp’s.
“There’s a huge industry in trying to defeat our filter,” Sollitto said.
Yelp filed a lawsuit in August against bankruptcy attorney Julian McMillan, head of the San Diego-based McMillan Law Group, saying that McMillan and his employees submitted fake reviews after the law office was hammered by a 1-star review in 2010. Yelp also said that McMillan engaged with five other lawyers in a review-trading agreement, submitting fraudulent reviews in praise of one another’s law practices.
McMillan said Yelp filed the suit in retaliation after McMillan took Yelp to small-claims court over an advertising dispute. “Two attorneys wrote reviews of me. (They) said when people ask for a bankruptcy attorney, they refer them to me. Where’s the falsity in that?” McMillan said. “The whole point in filing the case against me was just to harass, intimidate and embarrass, and they’ve achieved that objective.”
Now, McMillan said he is trying to gather allies willing to fight to keep themselves from being reviewed at all on Yelp. “I have talked to about 137 different business owners, and we have 86 on board,” he said. “The phone rings every day with somebody saying … ‘Good for you’ … or ‘Please help me get my business off of this horrific website.’ ”
No review site gets it right all the time, said restaurateur Tim DeCinces, owner of the Beach Pit BBQ in Costa Mesa, Calif. While an objective online guide that posts sound, constructive criticism for business owners is “a nice idea,” DeCinces said, it’s also “a fantasy.”
At one time, DeCinces, the son of former Angels third baseman Doug DeCinces, ran six Orange County, Calif., restaurants. In making the rounds and sampling food at his various locations, DeCinces found that his own observations frequently were at odds with posted reviews.
A Tustin location seemed particularly hard-hit on Yelp, he said. Eventually, through some IT detective work, his staff traced bad reviews to a competitor, DeCinces said, and the perpetrator agreed to stop.
Even so, a few unflattering reviews contributed, along with lingering effects of the recession, to his company’s retrenchment beginning in 2011, DeCinces said. He operates only one restaurant today.
A bad review “can really sink you,” he said. “It can diminish your brand.”
©2013 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)
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