Yelp has won fans around the globe by providing a neutral platform where users can share reviews of local businesses. If a Vietnamese sandwich shop makes the best banh mi around, reviewers will rave and send more customers that way. If a kosher deli’s pickles are stale, reviewers will say as much, and other readers will steer clear.
But what if it wasn’t users, but Yelp’s own advertising team that determined the balance of — and in some cases wrote — the reviews that make up the meat of the site? Worse, what if Yelp’s advertising reps punished businesses that refused to advertise by the deleting positive reviews and promoting negative ones?
These are the claims being leveled against Yelp in a raft of recent articles. The latest, an opus in the East Bay Express titled ‘Yelp and the Business of Extortion 2.0,’ charges Yelp with bullying local businesses into buying ads and threatening to sully their profiles if they do not.
These are serious claims. With more than 19.5m monthly unique visitors and more than 5m reviews, Yelp is the local review site du jour. And with $31m in funding, the site has ambitions to expand. Just last month, Yelp took its first trip overseas when it debuted in London.
In a call with the FT, Yelp chief executive Jeremy Stoppelman flatly denied the claims.
He said that members of Yelp’s sales team have no power to control the results displayed on a business’s page. Salespeople and engineers are on separate teams, and sit in separate offices. Reviews are displayed according to a proprietary algorithm, similar to the way in which Google results are determined.
Mr Stoppelman also said members of Yelp’s sales team are banned from posting reviews on the site. “No salespeople can write reviews,” he said. “That’s been a longstanding policy since Yelp began.” Other Yelp employees can write reviews, and Mr Stoppelman — an active reviewer — has even given one of his advertisers a one-star review.
To the charge that non-advertisers are faced with less favourable treatment, Mr Stoppelman made the point that in a simple search for, say, “pizza in San Francisco,” the first two results do not advertise with Yelp. (Enter the same query on Citysearch, the main competitor to Yelp, and nearly all the results are sponsored.) “If we were degrading non advertisers form our search results, why would so many non-advertisers be part of our search results?” Mr Stoppelman said. “You can’t say we’re not a friend of small businesses.”
Much of the unhappiness expressed by business owners is probably the result of their unfamiliarity with the way reviews are displayed, according to Mr Stoppelman. “That’s the one area we could definitely be doing better,” he said. “Getting better at getting in front of businesses and saying, ‘This is why we’ve got this proprietary algorithm.’”
To succeed, Yelp badly needs the trust of its reviewers, readers and businesses. If over-agressive advertising reps are leaving the wrong impression on potential advertisers, it could be damaging. “We are a fast growing company, so our messaging is not always going to be spot on,” said Mr Stoppelman.
But to the charges of extortion, and collusion between its sales and editorial teams, he was resolute. “There’s absolutely no way that this has happened or has ever happened,” he said.
Even the Express article, relentless in its accusations, concludes with a bit of backpedaling:
“Plenty of Yelp advertisers still have negative reviews on their pages. “You pretty much have to fight tooth or nail to get a bad review moved or removed,” said one East Bay restaurant advertiser, who wished to remain anonymous. Peter Snyderman, the owner of Elite Cafe, said his sales rep never mentioned moving negative reviews.”