Firehouse American Eatery in Pacific Beach currently has 3.5 stars on Yelp.
  • Firehouse American Eatery in Pacific Beach currently has 3.5 stars on Yelp.
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Reviewing the reviews

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.

Video:

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.

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

Steve Young

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.

“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 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

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.”

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Comments

Critter Oct. 7, 2015 @ 4:33 p.m.

Question: Is Yelp a National or Regional operation?

As a former business owner this article truly does come across as if the agencies that regulate consumer complaints, like the BBB should weigh in on how this advertiser and consumer watch dog is operating. Sad that lawyers and big bucks to back their operations are why they are still able to muscle or push small businesses into complying their demands for fees. Why isn't the State Attorney General's office been contacted to investigate these allegations?

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Ponzi Oct. 10, 2015 @ 9:11 p.m.

Yelp is international. And don't get me going on the BBB. It is also a scam that has been around for ages. It's just a pay-to-play private for-profit organization (franchise?) that pretends to be a consumer advocate. It's just an old school scam, people should know better. The BB never saw a dollar it did not like, no matter how scandalous the business is.

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dwbat Oct. 7, 2015 @ 5:52 p.m.

There are postings on craigslist.com constantly asking "Yelpers" to write positive reviews for payment. So their reviews can't be believed anymore, esp. the favorable ones.

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Dryw Keltz Oct. 7, 2015 @ 7:50 p.m.

Great article on a great topic. I knew that many small businesses (especially restaurants) have been grumbling about Yelp, but I thought it was just due to negative reviews. It's interesting to learn that Yelp simply filters out the reviews they want to filter out, and keeps what works for them. I just noticed that the site gives the option to sort reviews by the date they were written ("Newest First" etc) and I will always use this method to navigate their reviews from now on. It's still a downer to think that even new reviews can be deleted almost immediately after they are written though. There is definitely a Big Brother feel to Yelp's algorithm in this sense. It would just be better if the site posted all the reviews in order from newest to oldest, then give the option to sort for 'best," "worst," "oldest," etc. An algorithm doesn't really make sense for their reviews because, once you find out there is an algorithm for their reviews, it just leaves you wondering, "Why in the world does a website need an algorithm for how they post reviews?" Just post the reviews in order...especially for restaurants. Menus change, staffs change, owners change, the negative or positive review from two years ago might just be completely irrelevant today. Of course, groups could pile on negative reviews in unison, so even the "newest reviews first" system has its flaws. The fact that they just randomly delete some reviews that don't fit their ALGORITHM (UGHHHHHH) is just pure awfulness. The multiple reports about Yelp advertising badgering is pretty disheartening as well. It just feels like the algorithm is an excuse to be able to manipulate the reviews however they wish, while remaining under the guise of it being some technological marvel of negative vs. positive review placement. Just more silicon valley tech BS hiding behind the sacred algorithm to eliminate any semblance of transparency. Yelp should tread carefully regarding how they treat both their businesses and their reviewers...the Facebook to their MySpace might be just around the corner.

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Matingas Oct. 8, 2015 @ 5:33 p.m.

When I was looking for writing gigs, I found a craigslist ad. After a few email exchanges I found out this:

a) I needed to have a great rating with Yelp.

b) I was going to get $50-100 and a free meal at restaurants that they already had planned out.

c) The reviews always had to be 4 or 5 stars.

Sweet deal, but I did not even have a yelp account and good rating takes time and effort to get. But just goes to show how Yelp and their contributors work.

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Ponzi Oct. 9, 2015 @ 9:37 p.m.

Yelp Elite are passive-aggressive, unemployed, low information, low self-esteem individuals that Yelp corporate takes advantage of by making them feel special for contributing free content.. for the hopes of being invited to an "event" where they might get a tidbit of food and a cocktail . What a bunch of losers.

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Ponzi Oct. 9, 2015 @ 9:45 p.m.

The documentary Billion Dollar Bully is coming out. This kind of company comes out of Silicon Valley once in a while, this one is cursed company because it is run by an ignorant punk by the name of Jeremy Stoppelman... probably the worst CEO in decades...

Full disclosure, I am also a financial backer of Prost Films and Billion Dollar Bully. I absolutely hate Yelp and Stoppelman, who should be forced to resign. I am pro small business and I consider Yelp to be a criminal enterprise that should be sued as well as tried in Federal courts under the RICO Act. Yes, they are THAT bad.

http://www.prostfilms.com/

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Visduh Oct. 10, 2015 @ 7:50 p.m.

Ponzi, before I read your comments, the story got me thinking that this game isn't far removed--or removed at all--from the old-time "protection" racket practiced by the mob in the bigger cities. "It would be a shame if something happened to your business", and the way of preventing that damage was to pay "protection" money to the local wiseguy. While we hear of that racket in terms of the 20's and 30's, who's to say it doesn't exist today in some of our eastern and mid-western cities? Now is seems that there's a 21st century, e-commerce equivalent of the "protection" racket. Pay to advertise or we'll post a flock of negative comments about you and put you out of business. Seems very similar to me, and should be dealt with the same way.

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Ponzi Oct. 10, 2015 @ 9:08 p.m.

Visduh, although I am semi-retired, I keep my hands in the tech industry. I used to work with mainframe IBM systems and mated them with website interfaces. So I understand some things about the "new economy" and so-called social networking.

Yes, like you said, Yelp runs a modern day protection racket. They do indeed manipulate the reviews. They do pester businesses and when they are unsuccessful at converting a lead to a customer, they mess with their reviews. It's an immature business operated by an immature man.

I caught on to them years ago. The funny thing is that they have been around for over a decade... they started in 2004. They charmed people and were able to get a cadre of self-aggrandizing, passive-aggressive followers to give them free content in the form of reviews. They reward these "so-called" Elite with occasional invitations to parties where the attendees are made to feel special while they beg for tidbits of food and a free cocktail. I've attended them and the mood and people are pathetic.

Anyway, Yelp charges about 100 times what other similar internet advertising avenues cost. It is a really expensive proposition to advertise with them. That is why the savvy business know that Yelp is a scam, a racket. That they use the free content reviews to persuade businesses to pay them. Yelp is so low they even stir up their "Elite Squad" to attack businesses that don't "fall in line" with them. Yelp is like the mafia, they leave a paper bag in front of a business and come back later to see if there is a wad of cash in it... if not they re-arrange and delete the reviews for that business. It is true, it is documented and it will be divulged in the documentary "Billion Dollar Bully" with Jeremy Stoppelman as the Godfather.

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bubbletoed Oct. 10, 2015 @ 8:09 p.m.

I am surprised that the Reader is yelping about Yelp. Their own Yelp reviews are nothing to write home about. It seems that some people who had dealings with the free Rag come away thinking that the Reader takes them for granted, treats them disrespectfully and that there is not much work going on behind their closed doors. I don't know about that but it is not right to read on Yelp about stories being stolen from freelancers to avoid payment and rewritten by editors at the Reader using fake names + personas. "Carlos Bey," anyone? Since the Reader is always yapping about all the wrong things local politicians and greedy companies do here in San Diego, might they consider getting their own dirty house in order?

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Visduh Oct. 10, 2015 @ 9:32 p.m.

So writes bubbletoed, who just signed on to the Reader today. Sock puppet, anyone?

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Ponzi Oct. 11, 2015 @ 8:32 a.m.

Yelp viral marketing breeds die hard fans and they go forth and fight for Yelp. Yelp, if anything, functions like a cult.

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dwbat Oct. 11, 2015 @ 9:34 a.m.

Meanwhile, Stoppelman and his chums are laughing all the way to the bank.

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Mgenesis Oct. 12, 2015 @ 4:55 p.m.

Does Million Dollar Bully expose all those who sell positive 5 star fake reviews, to help a business?

It should be a CRIME FOR ANYONE TO POST on Yelp, A FAKE POSITIVE 5 REVIEW FOR MONEY for any DENTIST, DOCTOR OR ANY VETERINARY CLINIC.

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dwbat Oct. 13, 2015 @ 9:44 a.m.

Here's a craigslist ad from today; this shows the Yelp corruption.

writing assignment compensation: 15

Hi. Looking for people with yelp accounts that can post a great review for local businesses. Pay is $15 per review by paypal. Please reply with your email address and link to your yelp profile and I'll get right back to you.

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Ricechex Oct. 12, 2015 @ 12:37 a.m.

I am interested in seeing the movie. I think I have figured out the filtering process. If you have only 1-2 reviews---you will be filtered. I suspect this is because the reviewer could be fake and creating a positive review, or real, and just mad with a personal vengeance to destroy. The more reviews you have, the more they are not filtered. It increases your trustworthiness as a reviewer. If you look at the filtered reviews, they are almost always people with just 1 or 2 reviews.

I think yelp is fabulous, and have posted 140 reviews over 8 years. I am not a business owner and I am not an elite member with a limited profile. I use yelp when searching for restaurants and other services, and find it very helpful.

You can usually tell by the tone of the reviews, if it is someone with a bone to pick, or genuinely someone that had a bad experience.

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jnojr Oct. 12, 2015 @ 10:54 a.m.

I use Yelp fairly frequently. I've written a few dozen reviews over the past few years. I love to share really good experiences, really bad experiences, and I try to remember to share just regular ones. And when I'm looking for a business, I do check Yelp. I usually skip through and read the one and two star reviews. If they seem to show a pattern of bad behavior, I'll skip them. But by reading the reviews, sometimes I see people who are just being PITAs, and I've gone anyway, and left a good or great review after having a good experience.

A lot of people will treat Yelp as gospel, and there isn't much we can do about that. Hopefully, more people will use Yelp as one tool, not as the answer.

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