This article was published on February 20, 2009

Yelp will help you remove bad reviews…for a price.

Yelp will help you remove bad reviews…for a price.
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Former CEO of The Next Web. A fan of startups, entrepreneurship, getting things done faster, penning the occasional blog post, taking photos Former CEO of The Next Web. A fan of startups, entrepreneurship, getting things done faster, penning the occasional blog post, taking photos, designing, listening to good music and making lurrrve.

picture-93John, a restaurateur in the San Francisco, was listed on online directory like many other businesses. He had a few hundred visitors from Yelp,  his fair share of reviews but as a sales person from Yelp would point out on a regular basis

“..You have a few bad ones (reviews) at the top. I could do something about those.”

When John asked exactly what could be done, Mike the salesman response was:

“We can move them. Well, for $299 a month.”

Mike cleverly also considered the fact that many of the bad reviews are moved to the top intentionally so as to give reason to the phone call. He says:

“When you do get a call from Yelp, and you go to the site, it looks like they have been moved,” John said. “You don’t know if they happen to be at the top legitimately or if the rep moved them to the top. You don’t even know if this is someone who legitimately doesn’t like your restaurant. … Almost all the time when they call you, the bad ones will be at the top.”

John was one of many others interviewed by San Francisco newspaper East Bay Express about Yelp’s, six claimed similar stories and likened Yelp to the Mafia.

Yelp deny they do anything about negative reviews, even placing the issue on their FAQ page and CEO Geoff Donaker has said their sales representatives don’t have the ability to move or remove negative reviews.

Yelp need to be careful. The company isn’t short of competitors (Yell.comTimeOutTrusted Places and Qype) and with their recent international expansion they have the potential to fall hard.

It is fact that Yelp businesses can highlight a favorite review to appear at the top of the page about their business – nothing wrong with that. Businesses are also able to purchase a single “sponsored review” at the top of the page, however aside from that, the order of all other reviews is based on a secret Yelp algorithm, Yelp spokeswoman Ichinose said.

“To be explicitly clear, the algorithm is an automated system. There’s no human manipulation of that. … If we were to start doing that, that would erode the trust we have with consumers.”

So it’s clear that Yelp officials emphatically deny the removal of negative reviews for advertisers. How on earth do they explain peoples stories?

In an East Bay Express interview with CEO Donaker blows it all of as a big misunderstanding.

“Do I think that sales reps call are saying, ‘We’ll move your bad reviews’? No. But I think it could be true — when you get to pick your favorite review and put it to the top, if I said it a little different way, it might sound a little nefarious.” Donaker conceded that Yelp could do a better job of training its sales team to be “crystal clear about what you get and don’t get.”

A former Yelp advertiser Mary Seaton said she took the company up on its offer to move her negative reviews if she advertised. Seaton says she paid $350 a month for six months and during that time her negative reviews were removed and old positive reviews showed up.

Greg Quinn, general manager of Anabelle’s Bar and Bistro in San Francisco, said that around January 2007, a Yelp sales rep was trying to entice him to advertise. Quinn noticed that some of his negative reviews had moved further down on the page. Quinn says the salesperson called him up and said ‘Did you notice what I did? Well, we can keep doing that for you.’

Sadly, this is all apparently legal and according to a senior San-Francisco based attorney – web sites are allowed to present information however they wish. Although business owners may feel like they are extortion victims, the actual act of manipulating reviews to make people is not illegal and therefore little can be done about the matter. That said, word spreads fast, particularly online and if Yelp develops a mafia like reputation – it won’t be long before competitors use that to their competitive advantage (as they should).

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A big thank you to Mona for pointing this out.

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