Reviews Rashomon: Plumber Remembers Yelp Threat That Never Actually Occurred

five stars

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?

You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed.

11 Responses to “Reviews Rashomon: Plumber Remembers Yelp Threat That Never Actually Occurred”

  1. Phil Rozek says at

    Most of the time (in my experience), business owners’ complaints boil down to, “I said no to advertising, and then my reviews started disappearing.”  They wonder why reviews that initially got past the filter got filtered post facto, after the chat with the sales rep.  It’s less often that they claim Yelp actually voiced something resembling a threat.  

    I do think there are some rogue Yelp reps who gave business owners a shakedown, but I’ve seen nothing that to make me think it’s systemic.

  2. Greg Sterling says at

    One would assume that Yelp would aggressively stamp out any rogue sales people at this point to protect its reputation.

  3. Yelp Puts ‘Extortion Conspiracy Theory’ Back Into Spotlight - 12th Index Make Money Online Blog says at

    […] referring to a report from Greg Sterling, who wrote about a plumber he spoke with who told him “he had been solicited to advertise on the […]

  4. PPCKirk says at

    Fascinating article. If the plumber is genuinely remembering the details of a call, is it possible this is part of a scam? I.e., someone pretends to be Yelp (this has happened with Microsoft, Google, etc) and gives “inside information” hoping for things like credit card details and private information to be given out? 

    That’s my guess. Of course, always the possibility that the plumber is misremembering the conversation for various reasons.

  5. Greg Sterling says at

    I don’t really know how this got formed this impression. He seemed confident that advertising had been tied to review manipulation. But I heard nothing on the calls that suggested anything like that.

  6. Bob Barker says at

    More importantly people should ask who else is listening in on the call?  More often than not, that line “this call may be recorded or monitored for quality assurance,” is not used or even stated.  Yet a manager is happy to jump on to sell falsehoods of grandeur.  Interesting enough, if you did audit all of the recorded calls Yelp has, you will find a trend with some sales representatives using “inappropriate / over-exaggerating the benefits of advertising.  It can and does work, but it’s grabbing into a bag of marbles hoping for a diamond.  There may or may not be, one there for you.  Though reviews and advertising will never stand on the same stage, sales tactics need to be scrutinized and reviewed.

  7. Greg Sterling says at

    Only the sales side of the call is recorded at Yelp so they probably are not legally required to make that disclosure. The idea of exaggerated claims is a rampant problem throughout the industry where SMBs are being sold online marketing services.

  8. Empire Lock says at

    Yelp sales agents have always been very professional. I never felt pressured into buying a package. Many business owner do not understand how the listing works. When someone did a bad review which was a lie, he was not my customer, it was someone who wanted to hurt my business, I contacted Yelp, explained the situation and the review was taken off withing 3 days. Whenever I had an issued, their responses have been timely and right.
    When I tried to explain to a business owner that it is his actual customer who rated him, he refused to believe me, when indeed, I knew the quality of his service was getting worst.
    The only thing that is a sure thing to get good reviews is by always giving outstanding service to all the customers.

  9. brian macaluso says at

    Interesting article Greg- While Yelp does not offer to “help” companies that advertise with them, they most certainly do control the star rating of those that do not advertise with them. Case in point- my own company (dr. roof of atlanta) has only 2 1 star reviews listed on our yelp page, thus giving the public a negative perception of our company. We do however we have 31 reviews that are “not recommended” that only a savvy consumer would be able to find. In that subset, there are six one star reviews but also 23 five star reviews. I believe this is their way of punishing companies that do not advertise with them. regarding the 1 star reviews, we have a to call Yelp to explain that in most instances it is either a competitor or a fake review and they will remove in a few days. If we get a 4-5 star review, they are removed within hours typically.

  10. Greg Sterling says at

    What you just said represents a widespread belief. Yelp would say the “filtered” reviews are untrusted or that they have been flagged for some reason by the algorithm. I wonder if you went back and looked at your 4 – 5 star reviews that were “not recommended” whether there would be any common themes. Often these filtered reviews are people who are otherwise not active on Yelp. But I don’t know your specific situation. I realize how frustrating this is for business owners.

  11. Start up: Samsung’s adblocker’s back, cement – solved!, #error53 redux, the Useless Hackathon, and more | The Overspill: when there's more that I want to say says at

    […] Reviews Rashomon: plumber remembers Yelp threat that never actually occurred » Screenwerk […]

  12. Jason Hull says at

    I think it could also have to do with the fact that the BBB was caught in Los Angeles doing such extortion. They have since worked hard to rebuild their reputation, but Yelp has since dethroned the BBB.

  13. Luke says at

    Since being a business owner in the Sandy Springs GA area, I do agree that Yelp and many other advertisers harass you until you buy from them or after several hang ups they stop calling you. Honestly it doesn’t bother me, I just say no thanks, and move one.

Leave a Reply