The online restaurant review site Yelp has become increasingly suspicious to the small business owners who the site supposedly supports. The website is based in San Francisco, where it is also the most popular, although Yelp does post reviews about restaurants in 24 cities across the United States.
Restaurant and small business owners in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York have complained that Yelp employees use bad reviews as a way to cajole them into becoming a sponsor of the site, which costs anywhere from $300 to $1,000 per month.
Many owners have reported receiving repeated phone calls from Yelp representatives, particularly after a couple bad reviews appeared on the site’s entry for the owner’s business.
Since it is known that Yelp employees and third party contractors hired by the company have written reviews for the site, suspicion runs high among restaurateurs that Yelp is posting bad reviews as a way to get them to sign on for the monthly sponsorship fee.
For its part, Yelp denies manipulating bad reviews as a sales technique. But the main problem is that the review ranking system on the site isn’t transparent. Nobody really knows how Yelp decides which reviews go to the top of an entry on the site. Sponsors paying the monthly fee are able to decide which reviews appear in the top 5, and this is the primary motivation for them to sign up.
But restaurants that refuse to shell out the money and have many positive reviews seem to be dogged by unfair reviews that consistently appear at the top of their Yelp entry.
Others pay the money, but only because they feel they have no other option to preventing bad publicity. This is especially true in San Francisco, where Yelp is used by a majority of customers searching for restaurants and other service based businesses in the city.
One popular San Francisco restaurant, Delfino’s Pizza, has fought back by taking some of the more ridiculous negative reviews posted to their Yelp entry and printing them on T-shirts that staff wear while at work.
This subversive tactic has stimulated some good response from customers, and it raised another question about the site: how much do anonymous, unqualified reviews help or hurt a small business?
Either way, Yelp clearly has a customer relations problem, which they have begun addressing in earnest on their blog. It remains to be seen if Yelp will be seen as a valuable asset or an annoying liability to the small businesses it covers.