For anybody who’s new to the Bay Area, or who just wants to check up on a business before stepping foot in the door, Yelp.com is invaluable. With 25,000 listings in San Francisco alone, the site lets customers post public reviews of everything from the restaurants they love to the tattoo parlors they hate to the gyms that creep them out. Yelp’s selling point: it’s all about what you, the consumer, have to say. Readers get pure, unadulterated public opinion -- not trumped up, Yellow Pages bias.
Well, maybe. Recently The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa reported that Sonoma County businesses were receiving seriously aggressive calls from Yelp telemarketers, who promised that for a few hundred dollars a month, business owners could rearrange the order of their reviews -- making sure the good ones rose to the top and the bad ones never saw the light of day. The problem: that’s against Yelp’s official policy. This marketing controversy falls on top of already existing concerns that being able to purchase any type of advertising on the site is inherently misleading, and against the Yelp way.
It’s no secret that Yelp has “sponsors;” businesses which pay to be featured more prominently on the site. Go to any listing for a non-sponsor business – let’s say, for example, the page for Miette Patisserie in the Ferry Building – and you’ll see a suggested alternative business at the top of the review list. Head to the page of one of those sponsor businesses, like rival Patisserie Phillipe, and you’ll find that those who pay get to choose one – and only one – “favorite review” to move to the top of the pile. Seems legit enough.
Being able to buy your way into only good reviews, however, that’s something the site just doesn’t allow, says Yelp PR rep Stephanie Ichinose. The “Will Yelp remove bad reviews if a business pays for sponsorship?” section of Yelp’s FAQ claims the same. So how does she explain those pushy telemarketers who promised CA businesses the world? “We haven’t received any complaints,” she says. “I wasn’t there for those phone calls, so I don’t know what was said.”
Besides, the site only targets well-rated businesses as potential sponsors, Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman explains in a follow-up email. “If a business owner does not want to be called by the Yelp staff, they just need to say so and we will remove them from our list.”
Ichinose stresses that Yelp’s advertising model is the same as the one you’ll find on other respected sites like Google or Yahoo. “Sponsored results are clearly labeled as such,” she says, “so individuals can recognize them easily. Plus we never parse consumer sentiment,” i.e. alter reviews. She also wants to make clear that the site also offers lots of free tools for businesses -- like slideshows and about pages. How much do those who are paying spend? Depending on their type of establishment, she says, anywhere from $150 to $1,000 a month.
Of the 10 San Francisco sponsor business we called, each of which pay that monthly fee, only one was willing to comment on their experience with Yelp’s advertising policies and telemarketers. Sam, the owner of Crepes on Cole (who declined to give his last name), insisted the site has been nothing but friendly to work with – though he won’t be renewing his sponsorship next year. “I just can’t afford it,” he says.
With allegations about Yelp distortions still in the air though, will regular Yelpers start doubting the site’s user-generated cred? San Francisco local Jaime L., whose profile states she’s written 436 reviews, says no way.
“The great thing about Yelp is that they have a variety of ways to rearrange reviews based on funny, cool or useful votes,” she says, explaining that even if Yelp was selling the ability to put good reviews up top it would effect her. Final verdict: “I would just keep using the site as usual.”