Yelp Controversy: Online Rating System in Question

The popular website is accused of burying negative customer reviews in exchange for money.

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Yelp is one of my favorite user review websites. Because it attracts thousands of aficionados of food and drink, I find it especially useful when I'm thirsty for a new restaurant in my area. Contributing users often write thoughtful, prolific reviews about a wide range of local businesses, from hairstylists to mechanics. And it's growing at a brisk pace: Yelp, founded in 2004, had 6.8 million unique visits in January, up from 3 million uniques a year earlier, according to comScore. Its two main competitors, Yahoo Local and CitySearch, boasted twice as many uniques but grew at a much slower rate.

With such popularity, and thousands of local businesses gaining from Yelp's positive and negative reviews, it was surprising to see a lengthy article last week by the East Bay Express, accusing the San Francisco-based website of hiding or removing negative customer reviews in exchange for $300 monthly advertising campaigns. The article cited several local restaurateurs—some anonymous because they felt "threatened by Yelp's power to harm their business"—who refused the offer and then saw negative reviews become more visible or positive ones disappear altogether.

Yelp cofounder and chief executive Jeremy Stoppelman—who also addresses the controversy on Twitter—defends his company on the site's blog from the accusations: "As we've said many-a-time we do not do this and you don't have to take my word for it." Stoppelman provides an example of a sponsored ad that shows a glowing five-star review but with negative reviews beneath it. As for those vanishing positive reviews, Yelp says it often takes out fake-sounding ones: "Since 2006 we've had an automated system designed to protect against untrustworthy reviews, such as those written by an employee, business owner, or perhaps an ex-employee with a bone to pick," Stoppelman writes in a January 28 post. "Having this system means that certain reviews disappear from (or return to) a business' page from time to time."

Regardless of the accusations against Yelp, I'll continue to use the site. I normally don't look at the star ranking when determining what restaurant or business to use anyway; I always click on the "most reviewed." Even though I may see a five-star restaurant with one superlative review, I put more trust in a three- or four-star ranking with 250 reviews.

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