Here's one example, in a story in The Register alleging that Yelp, the popular user-review site, is charging retail establishments in San Francisco to bury bad reviews. Yelp denied it, of course, but reporter Cade Metz claims that:
"Over the last year, five San Francisco Bay Area businesses have told The Register that the company has offered to 'push bad reviews to the bottom' of their Yelp pages if they paid to advertise on the site."
(A local TV station -- KPIX, CBS5.com -- aired a similar report earlier this month, and TechCruch wrote a piece claiming that angry businesses were a sign of Yelp's success.)
I don't know whether the charges are true, but I do know that it matters. A lot. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, Yelp enjoys "an almost cultish appeal among young foodies," according to The Register.
I use Yelp myself, in fact, especially for information about establishments that may not have been reviewed in the so-called mainstream media. I figure any information is better than none, but I've learned to be wary of what I read, and not just because Yelp itself may be cooking the books.
Perhaps the bigger problem is that one or two angry customers can affect the perception of a restaurant, even if their "review" bears little relation to reality. There are plenty of personal attacks masquerading as reviews, and I've heard stories of Yelpers demanding freebies and special treatment to avoid writing bad reviews. The San Francisco Chronicle covered that issue earlier this year. The concerns have lead to the creation of sites like Yelp Sucks and I Hate Yelp where business owners complain about the site.
I know firsthand that the issue is on the minds of many retailers and restaurants. One close friend who manages a restaurant here tells of being negatively Yelped when he politely asked a college student leave when she was making a cell phone call from the bar in her pajamas. Even though the person wasn't a customer, she posted a Yelp review complaining of rudeness. Another friend who manages a shoe store believes that her business has been affected by negative Yelps that apparently were meant for a nearby business with a similar name. Neither have been able to get Yelp to remove the offending posts, and both have been contacted by Yelp salespeople. Needless to say, neither one is a big Yelp fan.
On the flip side, many business owners admit employing shills to post positive reviews. Often they claim it's their only way to respond to bad reviews that they don't believe are fair or accurate. Conventional wisdom has it that Yelp seems more interested in removing those posts than negative reviews, accurate or not.
So what's a growing business to do about all this?
You can't afford to ignore the influence of Web 2.0 "review" sites like Yelp. Especially as more and more online services add review features and more and more of your customers turn to them for information.
But you also can't afford to be held hostage by the sites -- or their users. That's like paying "protection" to the mob.
Ultimately, all you can do is try to be fair to each customer, and hope that the good reviews from happy customers outweigh any mean or spiteful ones. (When I read these kinds of reviews, I always try to ignore the best and worst and concentrate on common themes. Hopefully, other readers will too.)
If you do feel that your business is being treated unfairly, try contacting the site directly. It may not help, but at least you can say you tried. Trying to "game the system" with fake positive reviews from friends and family may work for a while, but you're likely to get blacklisted if you're caught. I'd love to hear any other ideas of how small and midsize companies can deal with this kind of situation.