Is Yelp Kind of Like the Mafia?

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Like many local food fanatics, I've had mixed feelings about Yelp. And I still do.

Some of the most venomous restaurant reviews, posted by users with no prior history on the site, come across as blatant trash-talking by competitors, while some of the blow-jobbish raves also seem like thinly veiled posts by a restaurant's own employees. And even among ordinary contributors, the anonymous public forum stirs up all kinds of hater-ade.

But it's also a wacky sort of democracy. I always figured that you need to weed through that stuff to get to the meat of the content, and keep an eye out for regular Yelpers who post consistent and (seemingly) honest reviews.

Here's something intriguing, though. A well-known local chef -- who wants to remain anonymous -- sent me a link to an article that ran earlier this year in the East Bay Express. It's an exploration of how Yelp employees in the San Francisco allegedly solicited money from restaurants in exchange for more favorable coverage on the site, along with protection from negative user reviews.

The Phoenix chef tells me one of his friends is quoted in the article, and adds, "I can tell you, while I have no recorded proof, I have had the same conversation with a Yelp sales rep that everyone talks about in the first two pages."

Is this Yelp's dirty little secret? If other restaurant owners want to dish with me, I'd love to hear about it.

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