John Mercurio was pleased with the 14 five-star ratings his customers had posted on Yelp, the king of on-line product and business reviews. Then he received a phone call from a Yelp advertising rep asking him to advertise his auto repair business on Yelp at the tune $500 per month. Small-business owner Mercurio gracefully turned down the offer.
After repeated calls and rejections, all of his 5-star Yelp reviews suddenly disappeared, replaced by a 1-star negative review that now appeared at the top of his Yelp listing. His sales dropped by 30%, and he was eventually forced into bankruptcy.
After losing a court case over the issue, Mercurio said, “I can’t believe they got away with it. It’s the mafia of the Internet. You’re basically a hostage: pay up or die.” He’s not the only one to link Yelp to Mafia-like tactics. Attorney Peter Doft, while acting as a small-claims judge in San Diego, accused Yelp of being a “modern-day version of the Mafia going to stores and saying, `You want to not be bothered? You want to not have incidents in your store? Pay us protection money.’”
One business owner, faced with the same pressure to spend $400 a month to advertise on Yelp, decided to fight back. Chef Michele Massimo of the Botte Bistro restaurant in Richmond, California, campaigned for her customers to flood Yelp with negative, 1-star reviews. Over 1,000 responded, most with funny, tongue-in-cheek comments that were obvious satires aimed at the Yelp process. Business increased and calls from the Yelp advertising department ceased.
These charges of extortion by Yelp are nothing new.
For years, small businesses have complained they were being extorted by Yelp by raising or lowering their review ratings based on whether they advertised with Yelp or not. Yelp denies all of these claims of course. Whenever anyone dares to bring a lawsuit suit against them based on extortion, they send in their army of high-priced attorneys to squelch the suit.
Product-review fraud is nothing new on the internet, but only recently have companies taken the issue seriously. On October 16, 2015, Amazon sued over 1,100 authors of faked reviews in a Washington state court for fraud. The reviewers sold their fake puff-pieces on the website Fivver.com for as little as $5.00 each. Fivver.com itself wasn’t charged.
Billion Dollar Bully
Founded in 2004 by two ex-PayPal employees, Yelp is now flexing its corporate muscles and doing its best to discredit a documentary being filmed about Yelp extortion before the film is even released. Titled the Billion Dollar Bully, filmmaker Kaylie Milliken is focusing on the negative impact Yelp can have on small business. It’s apparent Yelp isn’t happy about the work-in-progress film and has come out with all guns blazing to attack Ms. Milliken whenever they can.
In an interview with Daily Mail Online, Milliken said that after speaking with a number of small businesses, her conclusion is that, “Businesses feel extorted. After they decline advertising services from Yelp, they feel like their good reviews get filtered out and their negative reviews come to the front”.
Her interest in Yelp evolved after a visit to her doctor several years ago. She told Milliken about receiving really negative reviews by some patients but couldn’t figure out who the patients were. Then the doctor received a bad review where the client listed ailments the doctor had never heard of or dealt with. The review appeared the day after she’d spoken with a Yelp advertising rep and rejected their sales pitch.
In October, Milliken appeared on CNBC to discuss the movie. A spokeswoman for Yelp, Shannon Eis, also appeared on the show to defend the company which led to a vigorous, often hostile, debate.
During her filming, Milliken says that of the business owners who complained to her of the extortion tactics Yelp uses, 80 per cent of them refused to be interviewed on camera. Why? The fear of retaliation against their Yelp pages by the Yelp company itself was their main reason.
Billion Dollar Bully Trailer
Lawsuits against Yelp are likely doomed to failure
A lawyer with the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, Paul Alan Levy, says lawsuits against Yelp are likely doomed to failure until a business can produce evidence that Yelp is deliberately altering the review ratings. “There’s strong protections for websites that accept user reviews,” Levy said. “If a company like Yelp knows it’s going to be dragged around by any business owner, then it would create an enormous disincentive for them to allow negative reviews, and then what good does a review site do at that point?” Defamation would be a better legal claim than extortion, he added.
To the wondering public, the best advice concerning the validity of Yelp reviews might be emptor cavete, buyer beware. Or in simpler terms, if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck…it’s probably a duck.