The trouble with Yelp

Does advertising undermine the perceived purity of Yelp?

One sure way to guarantee someone will say something nice about you on Yelp: buy an ad and say it yourself. Advertising sales have made the site an online titan. But Yelp advertising has also been a consistent wellspring of controversy.

Last year Dr. Alan Boyco, official optometrist of the Vancouver Canucks, publicly accused Yelp of extortion, claiming that after he stopped advertising he was pressured by Yelp salespeople, and that more negative reviews began appearing on his page while positive reviews were filtered out. It’s a charge that has been made many times, including in a 2010 U.S. class action lawsuit that accused Yelp of extortion, claiming bad reviews were posted for businesses that failed to buy advertising.

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Accusations that Yelp favours advertisers often focus on the site’s filtering system through which Yelp selects which reviews will be approved and become part of the business’ official rating.  

“The recommendation software is engineered to weed out possible fakes,” says Yelp spokesperson Katrina Hafford, including reviews generated by the same IP address. Reviews from less-active users are more likely to be marginalized, as they are considered more likely to be partisan.

“While I can’t speak to a specific situation or provide exact details on how or why reviews may or may not get recommended,” Hafford says, “I can tell you that whether a business advertises or not has no impact on the automated software.” She cites a 2013 Harvard Business School Study that found no connection between negative Yelp reviews and advertising.

The U.S. class action case was dismissed in September 2014 by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But the court did not pronounce the allegations to be false. Instead it ruled that even if Yelp did what the plaintiffs alleged—manipulate reviews to favour advertisers—it did not qualify as extortion.  Vancouver’s Dr. Boyco says the court decision is what ultimately convinced him not to launch his own lawsuit. 

In a Los Angeles Times article published on March 31, transplanted Canadian jeweller Rick Fonger claimed that after he stopped advertising with Yelp, a competitor’s ads began appearing above his Yelp listing. A Yelp salesperson called and suggested that those ads would go away if Fonger resumed advertising. According to the Yelp spokesperson quoted in the story, Vince Sollitto, the intended message was that if Fonger bought the ad space on his own page, his ads would replace those of his competitor.

This year a Kickstarter campaign was launched to fund Billion Dollar Bully, a proposed anti-Yelp documentary. In the film’s trailer, restaurateurs allege shakedowns by Yelp salespeople and sudden spikes in bad reviews after restaurants decline to buy ads; one lawyer is quoted comparing Yelp to the Mafia. In a statement, Yelp responded that the proposed film’s allegations have been “repeatedly dismissed by courts of law, investigated by government regulators including the FTC, and disproven by academic study.”

On April 20, the filmmakers announced they had raised just over $90,000—150 per cent of their target. They planned to start filming in May.