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Yelp Has Restaurant Owners Suspicious

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.

About Greg McGuire

Greg has blogged about the food service industry for years and has been published in industry magazines, like Independent Restaurateur and industry blogs like Restaurant SmartBrief. He lives in Colorado with his wife and two sons and enjoys reading, live music, and the great outdoors.

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  1. Well put Greg!
    We heeded this problem and we’ve come up with a better solution that yelp.
    Think of us like a yelp, but instead a leaving a review, the customer can ask a question, share a suggestion, or report a problem for the public to view. Other customers can respond to those posts. We also encourage the business owner to join the conversation by forwarding customer posts by email and direct mail postcards.

    Our application gives a voice to the business owner since he/she can reply to a feedback left by customer. Imagine a customer has horrible dining experience at a restaurant. He/she could either leave a bad review on yelp or engage the business by leaving them a issue to
    resolve. The business can now reply to this feedback and provide an explanation.

  2. I recieved a call a few weeks ago wanting me to “sponsor” this site – they started the conversation with “You have so many good reviews, if you sponsor our site, we can make sure those that are less than favorable(I think I have one or two out of maybe 50)are “managed”. I told them I was circling the drain as it was, the economy has almost killed our restaurant, I buy radio advertising, print media, and other forms of local advertising and that I could not spend one more dime and keep the doors open.. We have an excellent reputation in our community, most of our business comes to us from “word of mouth” and I found the phone call uncomfortable. It made me feel that if I choose not to sponsor the site, they would make sure the negative responses would never go away and would always remain on top. I told her I did not have one more dime to spend. She hung up.

    • I think your experience is very similar to many people’s. Yelp has a pretty serious image problem and I’m curious to see how they handle it going forward.

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