Social review site Yelp has a big problem: Angry small-business owners. This week, Yelp published a fiery blog post defending itself, yet again, against claims that it extorts money from small-business owners. Some outspoken business owners and several media reports have accused Yelp of manipulating reviews and ratings for pages of companies that refuse pay Yelp for advertising.
"Let me be clear: This claim is not -- and has never been -- true," wrote Vince Sollitto, vice president of corporate communications at Yelp.
Managing a business page on Yelp can be a blessing or a nightmare for business owners. A page full of five-star reviews can help drive business. But negative reviews can kill business, and the process of trying to convince Yelp to remove fake reviews can be exhausting.
The problem is twofold. The algorithm Yelp uses to determine which reviews will be displayed on a business's page can sometimes filter legitimate, positive reviews out while highlighting negative ones instead. Lawsuits from business owners have alleged that Yelp will only remove those bad reviews in exchange for buying advertising on the site.
Yelp has denied these allegations, pointing out that the legal complaints have all been dismissed due to lack of evidence.
"In either case -- if Yelp is guilty of recommendation manipulation or if businesses are simply seeing the natural trend of recommendations come and go -- it's Yelp who has created this situation, and they are the ones who need to fix any misconceptions," says Brian Blau, a research director for consumer technology and markets for New York City-based tech research group Gartner Inc.
For business owners, one big issue is that many don't understand Yelp's filtering system. Presumably to guard its proprietary technology from competitors and users who'd try to "game the system," Yelp has not publicly revealed specific details about how the algorithm works.
"Ironically, it's this mysterious black box that instills distrust in companies that in turn begin to believe Yelp is out to get them," says David Gerzof Richard, a social media and marketing professor at Emerson College in Boston and president of public relations and social media firm BIGfish. If business owners that don't understand the process continue to see bad reviews, justified or not, the allegations will continue, he says.
"Because Yelp keeps their recommendation filter algorithm secret the public may never know Yelp's true intentions," Blau says. "Until Yelp removes any perception of bias or conflict of interest, businesses will continue to be caught up in a real or perceived tough spot when they start to see negative reviews on their Yelp page."