Wake Up Call

Are Yelp Extortionists Giving Restaurants the Shakedown?

Editor's Note: Obtaining a basic business account through Yelp is in fact a free process as is responding directly to Yelp reviews.

Generally, here at Chow Bella we tend to report on restaurant owners behaving badly. Whether that be Amy's Baking Company's Yelp tirade or Tina's Ethiopian Cafe's comment section meltdown. We still have a team of our best people decoding some of those pseudo-sexual insults. But today we're considering reports of customers behaving badly.

Timothy Sandoval of the Sacramento Bee has reported several cases of aggressive Yelpers trying to extort restaurants for cash and prizes. In one case, a restaurant owner actually offered the pissed-off customer a $60 gift card to a restaurant of the customer's choosing -- only to have the customer counter that only a $100 gift card would prevent an otherwise inevitable negative Yelp review. Unsurprisingly, the owner balked but is unsure whether the negative review ever materialized.

Perhaps the problem with Yelp is that it projects itself as a democratic process when, in fact, it really isn't. Yelp, much like Google, uses a closely guarded algorithm to decide which reviews are promoted and which reviews are buried deeper in the review gestalt. Though the site's official description of this filtering system sounds innocuous enough, business owners have filed lawsuits alleging that the system is rigged to coerce them into buying Yelp's ad and subscription services. Even if these charges are false -- and similar lawsuits against Yelp have been thrown out before -- there still is a strong profit motive for Yelp to promote negative reviews, albeit through their "objective" but secret, review filtering algorithm. What's more, as our colleagues at SF Weekly discovered last year, Yelp has no interest in correcting or amending reviews, even if parts are outright fabrications. And their profit motive is strong because Yelp, despite it's growth and popularity, has never turned a profit. Even after a successful IPO and a large increase in their revenues, Yelp still posted losses this month.

But in fairness, Yelp has taken actions to appease the business community and, presumably help stave off further lawsuits. Reviews that the algorithm deems unworthy no longer drop into a digital void completely but continue to persist on the user's account. However these phantom reviews no longer count towards a businesses overall rating. Yelp has also taken a page from traditional journalism and erected a firewall between their advertisers and the user generated content.

So we have to ask our business owners in the audience. Have you been extorted? Does this video sum up your feelings about some Yelp reviewers?

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Ando Muneno
Contact: Ando Muneno