Some question the credibility of Yelp

November 7, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
If you want to find recommendations for a local restaurant, retail store or even a hair salon, you can probably find them online. Lots of Web sites these days give ordinary citizens a platform to write reviews. But are they free from undue influence?

That popular site is San Francisco's own www.yelp.com . It's grown in leaps and bounds, with 14 million reviews of businesses from the West Coast to New York. But businesses say it might not be influenced only by "real people doing real reviews" -- as its slogan says, so 7 on your side took a look.

Before they shop, dine or even choose a dentist these days, millions first consult the Web site Yelp.

It is a hugely popular place where anybody can post star rated reviews about any local business. But how credible are the listings? Some business people say it's not exactly unfiltered, because Yelp promises to boost their image on the site -- if they buy ads.

"If you do advertise with them your bad reviews go to the bottom and your good reviews go to the top," said restaurant owner Steven Ranjbin.

Anjbin owns Cafe Rooz in Oakland. He says sales people called dozens of times trying to sell ads and promised to boost his good ratings.

"So when people are scrolling down they're going to see the good ones first and they're going get convinced this is a good place, and they're not going to get to the bad ones," said Ranjbin.

"They've asked me to advertise with them and pay advertising," said restaurant owner Alden Faught.

Faught owns Simply Fondue in Livermore. He says he too was promised favorable review placement if he advertised.

"If you sponsor Yelp, you can keep the negative reviews at the bottom, that people don't read, they don't go 10 pages deep in the reviews, they pull up the pages, read the top five or six and then move on," said Faught.

"Yelp absolutely does not engage in unethical sales practices," said Yelp Spokeswoman Stephanie Ichinose.

Ichinose says sales people do not make any such promises.

"There is absolutely no way we would allow a business owner to manipulate the review content on our site, whether you are a paying sponsored advertiser or a business that has received hundreds of reviews," said Ichinose.

But she backtracks a little on that statement. She concedes sponsors are allowed to move their best review to the top of their page, and also to the top of a competitor's page.

"The business owner who is the advertiser is able to select one review of their choice and bring that to the top of their page but it's clearly labeled as advertisement, as the business being a sponsor," said Ichinose.

One restaurant for example put a good review on top of its page, and it also popped up at the top of a competitor's page. But business owners claim the sales campaign is far more aggressive.

Robert Williams said his Panhandle guitar shop always had good reviews, but when he told a Yelp salesman to stop calling, he says this scathing review suddenly popped up on his Yelp page.

"As soon as I made it clear I didn't want to advertise with them that same day, a bad review went up with one star," said Williams.

Not only that, he believes this review is fake. Why? The reviewer claims he came to the store waving $12,000 in cash and tried out a Heritage Brand guitar.

But Robert doesn't deal in the Heritage guitars.

"When I spoke with someone from yelp about this, they said if you pay them and subscribe to them $150 a month to $300 a month, they can twist them around, put the bad reviews at the end of perhaps even make them go away," said Williams.

But Ichinose says that never happened. She says the salesman called Robert three days after the bad review, and the two incidents are not connected.

"We have determined that the claims of the business owner against Yelp are absolutely false. Yelp does not engage in unethical business practices. We simply don't," said Ichinose.

Yelp is no stranger to these types of claims. Its own review page on Yelp is peppered with complaints saying: "Yelp will remove good reviews for non-sponsors and delete bad reviews for advertisers."

"They're friendlier to you if you play ball with them. That's the inference that's made," said Faught.

"We have literally thousands of happy advertising clients many of which I would suggest that you to reach out and talk to," said Ichinose.

So where does that leave consumers?

Professor Jason Schultz directs a law and technology center at UC Berkeley.

"The question is, how transparent is yelp being. If I got to the page, do I know if someone's paid money or not," said Professor Schultz.

Sponsored reviews appear in yellow shade with a small label. Sponsors get other bells and whistles that are less apparent, like a slide show.

Other citizen review Web sites highlight advertisers too. On Citysearch, sponsors can add a message but it has a big label. Trip Advisor separates ads into these orange boxes.

Prof Schultz suggests yelp's sponsored pages should be separate.

"Or at least some place to understand that this is an area where you're going to have very little influence from the company and this is a place where I might have a lot of influence, the slide show, the best review, the burying the bad reviews so the consumer can tell, this is a different world I'm in," said Schultz.

Yelp says the average star rating for each company appears at the top of its page, regardless of the order the reviews are listed. Also, there's a new feature that lets non advertisers post a description of their business on their page.


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