Yelp: Higher Profile, More Heat

Yelp is now in the national spotlight. Most of the publicity the site has received to date has been positive. However, a local CBS affiliate did a critical piece on the site and its policies toward advertisers. (Urban Mapping called it to my attention.)

The controversy at the heart of the report concerns representations or promises allegedly being made to potential advertisers regarding treatment of negative reviews (that they would be de-emphasized or pushed down). Yelp denied that they agree to do anything like this. Citysearch has been accused of similar things in the past.

The link above shows the full segment on the news, together with interviews of the business owners who contend that they were wronged.

There’s also the parallel issue of removing positive reviews that were allegedly written by business owners or their friends. (This is a gray area: what if my relative or friend is really also a customer?) Yelp previously shut down trading of positive reviews among business owners.

All this reflects that the stakes are very high for local businesses and they’re trying to do something to influence how they’re perceived and represented online. There are also numerous challenges that Yelp now faces in holding such a powerful position in certain markets.

One of the interesting things that restaurant reviews aggregator BooRah is doing is enabling communication between restaurants and customers through its loyalty program, which I previously blogged about. As part of that program, businesses may collect comments from customers (favorable or critical) and may selectively publish them. BooRah then syndicates those comments to its partners. In this way local restaurants can publish positive reviews and choose not to publish negative remarks.

While there are several “reputation monitoring” programs in the works, this is the first such program that actually generates positive reviews or gives businesses this level of control. To be clear, these are comments that diners are making to business owners not reviews being written publicly on the BooRah site (as I understand the program). The business then has control over whether to make the comments public. It’s thus different than “de-publishing” a negative review.

Previous online research conducted by Opus Research (owner of Local Mobile Search) and AllBusiness.com last year we found that most SMB respondents had a favorable view toward online reviews. But this is a complex area that is still evolving.

The Kudzu program I blogged about this morning is another effort to give businesses more control or influence with consumers.

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30 Responses to “Yelp: Higher Profile, More Heat”

  1. George Says:

    There are obviously issues with the whole review format as it currently exists. Our view is that reviews will always be important but down the road people will use is as a secondary tool to video. This is part of the thesis behind jippidy.com. More importantly Jippidy gives the local business owner a voice.

  2. MiriamEllis Says:

    Interesting to note that Yelp appears to have removed Razzleberry Lips (sp) from their index as of that CBS story. I looked for it and it’s gone and a bunch of Yelpers have noticed this oddity.
    Miriam

  3. Jeremy, Yelp CEO Says:

    George, it’s there your spelling was off:

    http://www.yelp.com/biz/razzberry-lips-san-jose

    And it’s worth noting it’s a 4 star business.

    I’ve seen a lot of stories come and go over the last 4 years and the reporting in this case was of the lowest, most ethically questionable I’ve ever experienced.

    While the reporter didn’t come out and directly make accusations on air, through her slanted editing the story does make flase and confusing claims.

    We don’t move negative reviews around for sponsors nor do we treat negative reviews specially for advertisers. We have always allowed a *single* favorite review to be called out and it’s clearly marked as such.

    All the details of our sponsorship program are openly explained on our site as is our policy on review removals. For the skeptical out there, feel free to check out a random Yelp sponsor chances are you’ll see some negative reviews. That’s natural and expected.

  4. Jeremiah Says:

    Miriam – I found it here:

    http://www.yelp.com/biz/razzberry-lips-san-jose

    The CBS story was one-sided and sensational. It’s ironic it was done for the “ConsumerWatch” segment when Yelp has empowered consumers like never before.

    This tired formula for filling airtime is becoming so cliche: let’s find some way the internet affects people’s day-to-day lives, but instead of celebrating the novel and remarkable utility of new technology, we’ll feature the obscure/outlier negative anecdotes; imply the internet is a scary, murky place that occasionally spills into the real world and hurts people.

    It’s understandable that such a paternalistic narrative has emerged from a dying medium.

    Remember: Cyberspace is filled with danger, boys and girls, whether it’s thugs like Yelp holding businesses hostage or Myspace and its sexual predators. No one is safe. Turn off your computer. Keep watching your TV.

  5. SEO Igloo Blog » Could An IP Cost You Your Reviews? Says:

    [...] 06 Aug 2008 Greg Sterling has posted a thought-provoking article summarizing current negative publicity centering on Yelp and its alleged extortion of local business owners. This CBS coverage features quotes from several [...]

  6. Vinicius Vacanti Says:

    User contribution rates to web 2.0 companies are extremely low (less than 5%, think number of youtube viewers vs. people who actually put up youtube videos).

    It’s even harder for local review sites because the local businesses, by definition, have a limited number of customers / potential reviewers (i.e. 5% times a much smaller number). But, it gets even worse as increasingly motivated business owners put up fake positive reviews and their competitors put up fake negative reviews. In the end, you have a basket of reviews where not enough are legitimate.

    The more successful Yelp gets, the more motivated business owners will be to break the site.

  7. George Says:

    Okay, sounds like we’re getting a lot comments from Yelp employees. Personally I use Yelp and think its the best product out there but from my POV, the business owners don’t have a voice. If you look around the internet space the consumer has plenty to fight with. Just a thought.

  8. jane Says:

    George,

    I checked out Jippidy and it looks like a very promising site. Like what Vinicius said, a very small percentage of “real” users actually make any meaningful contribution to review-based websites like Yelp which is why it kind of makes me wonder about the future/validity of them.

    I shop a lot online but I’d say that I’m more in favor of jippidy’s approach to giving business owners a video platform to use to advertise their products/services… it’s a much better tool than a written review in which the legitimacy is questionable. Of course, don’t get me wrong, I do know a handful of people who will take the time to write a review if they like something… but, if you consider everyone in my personal/work life, I’d definitely agree that less than 5% willingly blog and/or review anything online.

    Alex

  9. Bug Says:

    What an unethical piece of writing from CBS news. And for supposedly caring about the consumer…why doesn’t CBS allow direct blogging response to their articles? Funny that we did not hear about Razzberry’s 4-star rating at all…

    As a Yelp user since the beginning, we eventually became involved as an event sponsor and more recently in the sponsored listing program. Since we receive a lot of foot traffic and the review numbers to go with it, we can use it in conjunction with our customer comment cards to dial in on strengths, weaknesses and consumer experience more effectively. We have received Yelp sales calls since the beginning of the sponsored listings program; and it was our choice not to become involved until we knew we could focus on it.

    For CBS news to try and suggest an extortion slant is appalling. They clearly did not state how the data-mining works. If anything, let it be a lesson to Yelp that the sales team needs to clarify that low reviews are NOT physically removed!

    JANE
    While it’s not video, sponsored listings allow a slide show of images…it’s just up to the business to be creative about the space. And if they are using Yelp to begin with, then they understand thinking outside of the box. Otherwise businesses and Yelpers can both post images under the listing anyhow.

  10. Linda M Says:

    I have been a loyal “yelper” for many years and am categorized as an “Elite”.

    I am furious and demand an answer from the lying CEO Jeremy Stoppleman:

    Why are you now paying people off the street ( Craigslist ads) $15 / hour to to write reviews but refuse to pay me ????
    In some cases you have even worked out deals where Elite Yelpers will get paid retro ( for the last 3 months of review writing ( $5/ review) ).
    When I contacted Yelp HR on this , they informed me they were looking for new Yelpers ( not existing) to actually increase the user numbers.

    Still loyal , but not much longer……

    Linda “Jiminy Cricket” M.

  11. AhmedF Says:

    Reviews = overrated ^_^

  12. Connie Says:

    How do I short Yelp ?
    Oh , ooops I forgot , they are not yet public .

  13. Sid Gleason Says:

    Wow, read this sniveling and whining hypocrisy (taken from above) by CEO of Yelp Jeremy Stoppleman:

    “While the reporter didn’t come out and directly make accusations on air, through her slanted editing the story does make flase and confusing claims.”

    Poor , poor Jeremy . What an absolute clueless. loser pud you are !
    This is EXACTLY what you do to 100’s of business’ every day by posting
    unfounded lies and in many cases false criminal accusations against people and business’.
    You were lucky this was “slanted” and not more direct.
    You are best to stay out of the public’s eye if this is really how stupid and blind you are.

  14. Melanie Says:

    Look at this , Stephanie Ichinose was also a loser at Yahoo in 2004:

    “In defense of fee-based indexing, Yahoo’s Ichinose said that even the most advanced search engines can benefit from supplementary data gleaned from paid inclusion.”

  15. Greg Sterling Says:

    You’re welcome to challenge the policy but please don’t make personal attacks “loser” against an individual. As I said here:

    http://gesterling.wordpress.com/2008/08/10/no-personal-attacks/

    . . . I’m going to remove such comments.

  16. Bill K Says:

    Here is an example of how Yelp operates. Paid Yelpers communicate on a Yelp Topic Site ( http://www.yelp.com/topic/san-jose-yelp-being-bashed-on-cbs-5).
    Two Yelpers who have never been in the establishment plot revenge because of the bad press brought to Yelp by establishment :

    Linda “JuRae” L. says:

    Oh yeah, I totally want ROTD now! aargh!

    4 hours ago Jack “.” W. says:

    wtf thats some fuct up shit yo fuck rasberry lips imma give them a 1 star

    I looked up ROTD and it means :

    ROTD Rage of the Dragons (game)
    ROTD Requiem of the Dead (game)
    ROTD Return of the Dragons (gaming, Warcraft III Campaign)
    ROTD Review of the Day

  17. George Says:

    I like Yelp but I seriously believe they’ll have to do more down the line. Regardless, their product is the best on the market right now. Although Jippidy is a competitor, I must say I use Yelp.

  18. Bill Kellinger Says:

    Get Information on the Yelp Class Action Lawsuit Here…

    http://www.yelplawsuit.com/index.html

  19. Bill Kellinger Says:

    Get Information on the Yelp Class Action Lawsuit Here:

    http://www.yelplawsuit.com/index.html

  20. Mihmorandum | 5 Steps for 5 Stars: Reputation Management for Small Businesses | Local SEO Says:

    [...] Yelp came under fire yet again for its refusal to let business owners moderate their own reputation online…the summer has not been good for Stoppelman and Company (Greg Sterling, Screenwerk). [...]

  21. Jim Says:

    I can tell you the technique completely backfired. I am a native new yorker, and a business owner in New York. When Yelp came to the city, it sounded like a great idea, until I realized that their reviews were mostly being generated by very few people (some with thousands of reviews) and comments from San Francisco. After a little review myself I realized that the reviews that were written were often inaccurate, as they were the reflection of plagiarized comments from other sites, or total fabrications. I dropped my advertising in less than one billing cycle, and refuse to have anything to do with it. Jeremy Stoppleman and Geoff Donaker are the ones who are flat out misrepresenting the situation, I can attest to that. And not in secondary markets. I made writeen and verbal complaints to staffers in New York and San Francisco. For fun, look up Sam Perwin and Nish N – they generated 50% of the new york content a few months ago.

  22. Greg Sterling Says:

    So you’re saying that individuals are not actually visiting places they’re reviewing; they’re merely copying reviews from other sources?

  23. Tessa Says:

    I don’t understand why Yelp doesn’t simply allow a short reply to any review from the business owner. I mean for goodness’ sake, Jeremy S. had the right to reply here and he took advantage of it, and his position is worth hearing in this case.

    I could see how Yelp might think that if they offer businesses a voice that they will no longer feel the need to pay for presence on Yelp. I think that the opposite is true. If yelp becomes a forum for both consumers and businesses, and the businesses are in the habit of checking in regularly, etc., they might feel more in step with the whole process and more likely to want to contribute a monthly participation fee, like for photos or something. The reviews would still be there and it would be hard to argue impropriety.

  24. CBS Affiliate Hammers Yelp — Again « Screenwerk Says:

    [...] Here’s my post in response to that original report. It received a lot of comments, including a couple of personal attacks on Yelp personnel that I removed because the posters had used false identities to level the attacks. [...]

  25. SEO Igloo Blog » SMBs Say Yuck To Yelp’s Telemarketers Says:

    [...] in August 2008, Greg Sterling brought my attention to the controversy surrounding Yelp’s negative review policy when a business owner claimed he was falsely led to believe that he could pay money to Yelp to have [...]

  26. Mihmorandum | Yelp Comes of Age | SEO Industry Says:

    [...] of this kind of coverage signaled in some way that it was now a force to be reckoned with–as Greg Sterling pointed out.  Companies like MerchantCircle have been using underhanded sales tactics for years, or at the [...]

  27. Managing and Improving Your Business’s Reputation Online - Infoseek Technologies Says:

    [...] Yelp came under fire yet again for its refusal to let business owners moderate their own reputation online…the summer has not been good for Stoppelman and Company (Greg Sterling, Screenwerk). [...]

  28. Lacie Media » Managing and Improving Your Business’s Reputation Online Says:

    [...] Yelp came under fire yet again for its refusal to let business owners moderate their own reputation online…the summer has not been good for Stoppelman and Company (Greg Sterling, Screenwerk). [...]

  29. Managing and Improving Your Business’s Reputation Online | Targeted Local Says:

    [...] Yelp came under fire yet again for its refusal to let business owners moderate their own reputation online…the summer has not been good for Stoppelman and Company (Greg Sterling, Screenwerk). [...]

  30. 5 Steps for 5 Stars: Reputation Management for Small Businesses | MeetingroomReviewResearch Says:

    […] Yelp came under fire yet again for its refusal to let business owners moderate their own reputation online…the summer has not been good for Stoppelman and Company (Greg Sterling, Screenwerk). […]

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