Yelp has been accused of manipulating local reviews to “blackmail” business owners into advertising on the site. It’s widely believed that Yelp uses the threat of removing positive reviews as leverage accordingly.
Beyond this belief — and related claims in unsuccessful litigation against the company — I have never seen actual evidence that Yelp does this. The company has always fought these allegations and argued they’re unfounded — yet they persist.
Thus we have a mysterious situation: no one has been able to prove that sales reps are making these statements or threats to business owners. But many people are firmly convinced that this is happening. Most recently I heard this again from a business owner a couple of weeks ago in Austin, Texas at the LSA Bootcamp during the Yelp session.
A month or so before that I had a plumber replace my kitchen faucet. As I do with all service professionals I engaged him in discussion about how he marketed himself and where his leads were coming from. Yelp was one of the primary sources.
He then told me that he had been solicited to advertise on the site and that he declined but was told by the telephone sales rep that his reviews could potentially be affected if he didn’t. This was the first time I’d directly heard this from a business owner.
In my mind this was the first real “evidence” that some sort of sales manipulation might be going on. I informed Yelp of my exchange with the plumber and it was immediately disputed: “That didn’t happen,” I was told.
To make a longer story short, Yelp invited me in to listen to the sales calls with this plumber, whom I identified to the company. Yelp records its end of sales calls but not the business owner’s conversation.
I sat in Yelps offices and listened to what must have been 25 – 30 calls to this plumber. Most of them were trying to set up appointments to discuss Yelp advertising. And there were at least two Yelp sales reps who were trying to close the account; a second one took over after the first one was unsuccessful.
There was nothing that sounded like a threat or any suggestion that reviews would be removed or otherwise altered by Yelp if the guy didn’t advertise. There wasn’t anything that could be construed as even implying that.
If you’re a true conspiracy theorist you might now be inclined to believe that Yelp edited the records or omitted key conversations. But I can tell you it did not; I listened to the entire tiresome sequence of calls.
Yelp also tracked down the sales reps on the account and questioned them about the plumber and their interactions with him. The reps denied there were any implied or explicit threats.
I believe the Yelp version of events and I was exposed to evidence that supported it. Yet my plumber still got this impression from somewhere. That’s the mystery here.
It could be that the “Yelp extortion” meme is in the SMB zeitgeist and it colors the perceptions and interactions with Yelp reps. It’s also the case that what used to be called the “review filter” is not well understood by SMBs. So that plays into the review manipulation belief.
There’s a clear disconnect between what the plumber told me and what I was exposed to at Yelp, which just didn’t support his version of events. I concluded that Yelp didn’t threaten the guy directly or indirectly.
I can’t explain how he formed his impression. It’s Rashomon. How would you explain what might have happened in this case?