Firehouse American Eatery in Pacific Beach currently has 3.5 stars on Yelp.
Reviewing the reviews
Real San Diego Business Yelp Review: “This place is a zoo! Arrived at my appointment time, so you would think they would be ready to roll my car in and get to work. Can you say “several” angry dissatisfied customers? Phones ringing off the hook, line was out the door. Poor Brent (?) did his best to handle angry customers. He’s the reason for the one star. A few customers took their car without getting the work done.”
“Yelp is a necessary evil, but I’m not afraid of them,” said restaurateur Matt Spencer. “Their tactics are bullying and their whole business plan seems very mafia-esque.”
Spencer and Tyler Charman are co-owners of San Diego eateries Vin De Syrah, Firehouse American Eatery + Lounge, Kettner Exchange, and the nightclub Aubergine. “They’ve called me plenty of times to tell me if I pay a monthly fee they will clean up my page,” he said. “I’m not paying them a damn thing, and of course when I tell them that my good reviews miraculously get buried and the bad ones come out on top.”
A big company such as Yelp is not without their own business woes. Bullying accusations dog the San Francisco–based review conglomerate’s whose stock fell from $68.25 to $21.14 over the 12 months ending September 29, 2015. Yelp took a hit when the Minnesota dentist who allegedly hunted and killed a lion named Cecil in Zimbabwe had Yelpers spamming his page while Yelp deleted them as fast as they could. But even with their stocks in a freefall, Yelp is a force to be reckoned with.
Billion Dollar Bully
I had no idea that Yelp was such a controversial site until a friend of mine lamented about her horrible reviews. I took a peek at her page and was amazed at the personal attacks on her and her restaurant, which has been in operation for more than 30 years. (She would not go on record out of concern that Yelp would retaliate. I called 25 businesses and only the few I have quoted would speak to me, all because of fear of retaliation.)
My friend told me that she called Yelp and complained and was told there was nothing she could do about her online Yelp reputation. She refused to pay them for advertising when they called her. She hired a company to help her fight the reviews instead. That didn’t work, so she hired another company to help. So far, that’s not working either. She is so consumed with taking Yelp down that she contributed to a team of producers making a documentary about Yelp’s practices called Billion Dollar Bully.
Billion Dollar Bully trailer
Kaylie Milliken, the San Francisco–based producer of Billion Dollar Bully, traveled to San Diego in May and found only one business owner willing to speak with her for her film.
“San Diego is a hotbed for the Yelping community,” she said. “San Diego makes a lot of money off of tourist dollars. If a business — a restaurant, in particular — has negative Yelp reviews, they are going to lose a lot of money because many tourists look up restaurants on Yelp when determining where they want to eat. They are in an unknown area and want to ensure they will be getting a great experience. Some restaurants in San Diego have implemented the “One Bad Review, You’re Fired” rule. That is to say, if a server gets one negative review on Yelp, they are fired. How sad to know that your job is in jeopardy because you didn’t pour water quickly enough for one angry customer.”
Milliken said that her idea for the film came to her when her husband, a lawyer, complained about aggressive Yelp salespeople and how hard it was to get off the phone with them without being rude. She said she didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to his complaints because she frequently used Yelp to find businesses.
“I was at my physician’s and we began discussing Yelp. She told me her experiences, and I was shocked by what she had to say. Shocked, and in disbelief. I really didn’t want to believe it, as I realized that if what she was saying was true, then Yelp was certainly not a service that I could use, as I realized it wasn’t reliable at all,” Milliken said. “So I went home and began researching it, and I couldn’t believe the outcry by business owners who have had the exact same experiences. I looked at Yelp’s replies to all these concerns and found gaping holes within each one of their defenses. I realized this would be a very compelling documentary, as many people use Yelp daily without realizing what’s going on behind the scenes. Yelp claims to be focused on the consumer experience, but they are doing consumers a huge disservice when they penalize businesses for petty reasons.”
My Good Reviews Disappeared
There have been multiple lawsuits in which a company’s owners made claims that Yelp put them out of business, but so far, none have stuck. Clearly Walter Palmer, the Minnesota hunter/dentist has lost his business due to Yelp posts. One read, “You kill a protected lion, we kill your shitty business. :)”
When headlines announced that Memories Pizza in Indiana was refusing to cater gay weddings, its Yelp page was flooded with negative comments, forcing them to raise money online to stay afloat.
Locally, Dante Jones of Encinitas said that multiple Yelp reviews were partially to blame for the closure of his Los Angeles–based restaurant, Dante’s Chicken & Ribs, in 2007.
“We got some really great reviews from different magazines in L.A, but the reviews on Yelp were nasty. They ripped me apart,” said Jones, who has worked in the San Diego restaurant community for almost 30 years. “I knew what I was doing, because I’ve worked under some great chefs. My ribs fell off the bone. They [Yelp] asked me for advertising dollars but I couldn’t afford it. It seemed to me after I told them ‘no’ my good reviews disappeared and the nasty ones were front and center. It was so scary. It really did help put me out of business.”
From the San Diego Yelp Elite Page: “...this means that your reviews are respected by the community around you and you are one of the ideal representatives of what Yelp is. One of the perks is the events, where you get to be spoiled to your hearts content by free food, drinks and swag. This is also good for the vendors as they get their business advertised to the people most likely to check it out. I also get to meet other fellow Yelpers in the flesh — yes we’re actually quite nice people!”
Yelp, by its own admission, gives preference to reviews written by its elite members. According To Yelp, “Elite-worthiness is based on a number of things, including well-written reviews, high quality tips, a detailed personal profile, an active voting and complimenting record, and a history of playing well with others.”
There are stories within the restaurant industry of Yelp Elite reviewers demanding preferential treatment, and it’s hard to believe that Yelp Elite reviewers can afford to go out to eat so often. Common sense dictates that it would be difficult for most of us to find the money to eat out six or seven times a week, as many Yelp Elite claim, and the time to write about it for free.
“Some of the reviews were clearly made up,” Jones said. “They wrote about food that I didn’t even have and said they had eaten something on such and such a day when it was clearly a lie. I doubt that the people who wrote the reviews knew what they were doing to my business. I doubt they even cared.”
When I contacted Yelp spokesperson Rachel Walker to ask her about the rants and conspiracy theories on anti-Yelp websites, message boards, and Facebook pages, she quickly responded. “Because of Yelp’s influence, small businesses are realizing that online reviews are incredibly important,” she wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to frustration, as businesses that don’t like their reputation on a review site like Yelp are unable to change it by trying to game the system due to our recommendation software. They have only one last recourse: to discredit the site as a reliable source of information. With 20 million small businesses in America alone, there are certainly thousands with a motive to impugn the integrity of our service. I assure you they are not correct.”
Yelp: truth or advertising?
Many business people I spoke to said that Yelp charges them between $350 to $500 a month for advertising, but they claim it’s more like intimidation. Said one who asked not to be named, “They never came out and said it, but they claimed that people who pay for advertising end up having more stars than businesses that don’t pay. That sounds like a mafia-type of claim if you ask me.”
Yelp refutes the claims of strong-arming businesses. Walker says, “there is no amount of money you can pay Yelp to manipulate reviews, and if a sales rep at our company implied otherwise they would be terminated immediately.... Online reviews have completely changed how consumers find small businesses, and businesses are starting to realize how important sites like Yelp are. We cannot share exactly how our recommendation software works, or else it would make it easy to game the system and render it useless. Because of that, many people speculate on what data points the software looks at and make incorrect assumptions, thus propagating false information.’
Milliken said she would like to see legislation be changed regarding the Communications Decency Act. Yelp has been able to win their lawsuits through that act, a law that came about in 1996 when lawmakers were trying to figure out how to regulate porn online. “The law was changed into something that it wasn’t meant to be. Here we are in 2015, and the internet is a whole lot different than it was in 1996,” she said.
Kaylie Milliken (right) and Mellissa Wood produced Billion Dollar Bully, a documentary about Yelp’s business practices.
“Before my husband and I were married, he represented me in a legal matter,” Milliken said. “He was just starting his practice and I thought he should try getting reviews on Yelp, so I left him a review. Then my review disappeared. I left him another one — again it disappeared, and I left him a third. Finally, I called a friend who worked for Yelp at the time, and she told me about the filtering system and explained why my reviews weren’t showing. That made sense to me, and I did not harbor any ill will towards Yelp. After all, I continued to use their website for the next six years or so, until I had that conversation with my physician. I wish Yelp would let me go in and talk to them but they won’t.”
Falling Star Ratings
Many business owners have taken Yelp to task because of their aforementioned aggressive sales people, not taking reviews down even if they are fraudulent, and other business practices. But Yelp spokesperson Walker responds, “We work hard to provide business owners free tools (like responding to reviews, adding profile information, revenue calculators, and reservation tools) and give guidance on best practices for our site through our Business Outreach team, who travels the world giving presentations to business owners, hosting webinars, writing a blog, and more. Our Small Business Advisory Council has also been very impactful. Many suggestions from the council have been incorporated into improving Yelp and adding new features, like sharing customer metrics and the revenue estimate tool. You might also be surprised to know that businesses report an average of $8000 in additional annual revenues just from claiming their free business page on Yelp.”
Walker continued, “The only thing businesses can buy on Yelp is advertising and profile enhancements. Any claims that Yelp manipulates reviews for money or that advertisers are treated any differently than non-advertisers are completely false and have been repeatedly dismissed by courts of law, thoroughly researched and disproven by academic study, and investigated by government regulators, including the FTC, who closed a nearly two-year investigation without taking action.”
Steve Young, a San Diego business owner who is an online-reputation marketing expert said that Yelp is not doing enough to help small businesses and is actually ruining millions of reputations. He recently kicked off Trade Reviews, an Indiegogo crowd-funding venture designed to allow business owners to give and receive feedback and help protect one another from unfair business practices of online review directories.
Young claims that Trade Reviews aims to override the review filters and create an easy platform for business owners to ethically represent their true reputation on major review directories.
“Some business owners are struggling when it comes to their online reputation, specifically regarding the reviews which are often unfairly hidden, called ‘filtered reviews,’” Young said. “Many people don’t know it, but online directories own these reviews, and sites like Yelp and others often hide them at their discretion, which can cause a business’s star rating to plummet, which in turn hurts their sales.”
Young was the lone San Diego business person interviewed for Billion Dollar Bully.
“I was speaking to a business owner of a security alarm company recently, and he explained to me that he had worked for over two years to build up his five-star rating on Yelp. Two months ago he woke up one morning and all of his reviews had been wiped away, filtered. All of them,” Young said. “Now he doesn’t have a star rating or reputation at all, and it looks like he is out of business. When he called Yelp, they could not give him a reason why they filtered his reviews.”
Young said that there are thousands of similar cases like this. “Just go to Yelp.com and look up ‘Yelp’ and you will see over 5000 one-star reviews all centered around unethical business practices by Yelp,” he said. “Many of the sites do not tell you why they filter reviews or their exact formula for filtering. Some review directories have been accused of manipulating the reviews they show while trying to extract advertising dollars from the business.”
“Yelp is a necessary evil,” says Matt Spencer, co-owner of Kettner Exchange and other San Diego eateries.
Spencer agrees and said that Yelp has made a lot of enemies in the small-business community and they need to “clean up their act.... They need to get rid of the whiners who complain about every tiny thing,” he said. “It’s gotten out of hand giving such power to people who need to get attention by slamming a business. What Yelp should do is take a page from Uber and let the businesses in turn rate the customer.”
Real Yelp review of Yelp
“The only people mad at Yelp are small business owners who can’t handle the fact that their customer service skills suck! Lol! But really though, SMB peeps, just because everyone isn’t in love with your business doesn’t mean Yelp needs to be shut down. Grow a pair, why don’t ya? ;-)”
Yelp spokesperson Rachel Walker
Yelp’s Rachel Walker explained that online reviews have been a tremendous boon for consumers. Tourist traps can no longer fleece consumers, and she cites the increase in customer service this new accountability has driven. She said that Yelp has also allowed small businesses with great value and service to compete with national chains.
“At the same time, this has stymied the efforts of some businesses to control the discourse about their business; now, one-way marketing copy is not the only information available to consumers,” she wrote. “There’s no doubt about it that consumer reviews can now pick winners and losers in the marketplace (not just whoever has the biggest advertising budget).”
David Cohn (with Leslie Cohn), president of the Cohn Restaurant Group
While it may seem like everyone in San Diego hates Yelp, David Cohn, president of the Cohn Restaurant Group said that the online referral service should be taken with a grain of salt. “I’m not a Yelp hater. I think you need to have a sense of humor about the reviews and wonder who has time to eat and then sit down and write 12 paragraphs about the dining experience.”
He said that he takes criticism from the reviews to heart if they seem to have merit but ignores the pettiness that is often found in the reviews.
“I think sometimes that the dining experience is being taken too seriously,” he said. “When you go out it should be about family and friends and the food and beverages. Just enjoy it the best you can. Bottom line, I don’t take negative Yelp reviews seriously.”