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Businesses yelp about Yelp reviews

Unlike other ratings websites that offer guidance in planning a vacation or buying a car, Yelp cuts straight to the heart of everyday life.

Across much of the globe, Yelp.com has emerged as the go-to website for finding customer reviews of restaurants, dry cleaners and other shops just down the street. The name — synonymous with a squawk of pain — has entered the consumer lexicon as a verb: To Yelp a place is to check it out online, see the latest word about it.

Yelp’s enormous database of reviews, ranging from 5-star raves to 1-star disses, has made it perhaps the most polarizing of the review websites — loved by millions of consumers, many of them active review writers who post regularly on the site, and loathed by significant numbers of business owners.

Jeff Terranova is packing to move to New York after his Long Beach Vegan Eatery in Long Beach, Calif., failed. Terranova had financial struggles in keeping the establishment and says bad reviews on Yelp contributed to his woes. Some restaurant owners have complained of malicious reviews from competitors and lack of support from Yelp in removing unfair ratings. (Josh Morgan/Orange County Register/MCT)

Photo by JOSH MORGAN,

Jeff Terranova is packing to move to New York after his Long Beach Vegan Eatery in Long Beach, Calif., failed. Terranova had financial struggles in keeping the establishment and says bad reviews on Yelp contributed to his woes. Some restaurant owners have complained of malicious reviews from competitors and lack of support from Yelp in removing unfair ratings. (Josh Morgan/Orange County Register/MCT)


Among the website’s 108 million monthly visitors are fans like Robert Genta, a 23-year-old Garden Grove, Calif., restaurant worker who frequently looks up reviews on his smartphone and relied on them extensively during a recent eight-day trip to St. Louis and Atlanta.

“That’s pretty much how all our meals were planned,” he said.

Business owners are sharply divided about Yelp. Some appreciate the spotlight afforded by the widely viewed public forum, where obscure boutiques and eateries have gained invaluable exposure. But entrepreneurs with less-than-stellar ratings often complain they have been damaged by malicious, unwarranted bad reviews posted by business rivals and bitter former employees.

Anger over poor reviews has spawned lawsuits against Yelp, including a case now before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that challenges the website’s advertising practices.

The backlash has raised pointed questions about whether review sites — now a multibillion-dollar industry — are capable of being the objective ratings tool they are intended to be, especially when powerful sites like Yelp post reviews written by ordinary people.

Yelp’s executive spokesman, Vince Sollitto, acknowledges that the review site must be on constant guard against ever-more-sophisticated attempts to game the system.

“You’d be surprised at how many business owners write a 5-star review of their own business,” Sollitto said, “and a 1-star review of their competition.”

Adryenn Ashley, who owns a public-relations company in Reno, Nev., and runs a website called Yelp-sucks.com, said she has “a list of thousands of businesses that are disgruntled.” For proprietors stung by poor reviews, “there’s no recourse,” Ashley said. “There’s no grand jury.”

Entrepreneurs running small businesses are especially vulnerable to unfair reviews and often feel powerless to rectify them, she said.

Dary Jahromi, the 43-year-old founder of 24-7 Ride, a shuttle and limousine service based in Tustin, Calif., said his company has been the target of an unusual number of negative critiques. Sixteen out of 24 reviews visible on Yelp give 24-7 Ride the lowest possible rating, a single star. What especially troubles Jahromi is that the critics are often so cloaked in anonymity that he cannot tell if they are real people.

A reviewer identified only as “Tina G.” of Studio City, Calif., wrote a vague, two-sentence attack, posted on Sept. 20, that describes the company as “The absolute worst, most embarrassing excuse for a ‘car service’ in the entire world.” A similarly negative review was written by someone whose profile photograph appears to be a patterned rug. Another critic displays a photo of a cat.

To Jahromi, the comments amount to potshots taken by shadow warriors. He said he suspects that rivals are smearing his 4-year-old company. He also said he knows of a former employee who vowed to “crush” the business.

Yelp allows the critical reviews to be posted without verifying any of the critics’ assertions, he said, or divulging the true identities of the writers.

“They’re destroying our character without proving or verifying the source,” Jahromi said. “And they’re capitalizing on this — they’re making money on this.”

Yelp and other review sites have broad protection to post reviews under the 1996 federal Communications Decency Act, a law intended to safeguard freedom of expression on the Internet.

Nine years after its launch, Yelp has outlasted a number of similar review sites formed around the same time and has rapidly gained a global reach, company spokesman Sollitto said. The website operates in 23 nations, and its revenues, which have been climbing by 66 percent annually, are expected to hit $228 million this year.

At the company’s headquarters in San Francisco Sollitto insisted that business owners do have ways to deal with negative reviews.

They can respond publicly — by posting rebuttals on Yelp — or privately by sending emails to individual reviewers through the website, seeking to correct the problems that elicited the complaints. Or business owners can flag reviews suspected of being bogus or malicious so that Yelp can investigate whether they should be removed, Sollitto said.

Yelp seeks to filter out fake or biased reviews by means of a complex, automated computer algorithm that has proved highly effective, according to Sollitto. That algorithm is constantly being refined, he said, to stay ahead of scammers. Yelp considers impartial, truthful reviews essential to its success, he said.

Yelp maintains that it does not take advantage of its powerful position as a review site to heap praise on its advertisers and cast a dimmer light on companies that do not support the website. Neither the content of reviews nor their placement in the search listings is affected by whether a business owner advertises on Yelp, Sollitto said. Advertisers get clearly labeled ads on the website, while all companies — advertisers or not — are treated equally in the review space, the spokesman said.

Some business owners say otherwise. As part of a class-action lawsuit filed in 2010, four named plaintiffs accused Yelp of instilling “fear in businesses that, if they do not purchase advertising, Yelp will manipulate their reviews so that, for example positive reviews are ‘removed’ or ‘filtered’ negative reviews are suddenly posted, sometimes by Yelp itself (and) negative reviews, which were previously filtered, are sometimes revealed for reasons unrelated to the automated review filter.”

The case involving plaintiff Cats Dogs Animal Hospital in Long Beach, Calif., began late in 2009, according to the lawsuit, when a veterinary manager noticed a negative review that violated the website’s review guidelines. Yelp agreed to remove the review, after which a second critical review appeared.

“Soon after the appearance of these negative reviews, (the hospital) began receiving frequent, high-pressure calls from Yelp sales representatives, who promised to manipulate Cats and Dogs’ Yelp.com listing page in exchange for Cats and Dogs purchasing an advertising subscription,” the suit said. “Yelp would hide negative reviews or place them lower on the listing page so Internet users ‘won’t see’ them.”

Within a week of the hospital refusing to buy ads, the first negative review, which had been removed for violating the website’s guidelines, reappeared on Yelp, the legal action stated. The author of the second negative review then posted a new review criticizing the doctor who runs the animal clinic.

Yelp responded by saying business owners failed to prove any threat or harm and accusing plaintiffs of seeking “to suppress legitimate — and protected — online consumer commentary about their businesses.” The website’s attorneys addressed the Cats Dogs complaint by telling the court, “Yelp ‘vigorously denies’ that its sales rep offered the ability to ‘hide negative reviews’ or ‘place them lower on the listing page.’ ”

“Plaintiffs do not (and cannot) point to a single instance of Yelp engaging in any threat of unlawful injury or wrongful use of fear,” Yelp said, “as required to demonstrate extortion or attempted extortion.”

Yelp prevailed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. Judge Edward M. Chen ruled in 2011 that the plaintiffs failed to prove their allegations and that, under federal law, Yelp is protected from responsibility for reviews posted on the website.

Business owners have appealed to the 9th Circuit Court, arguing that they were not allowed to conduct the necessary legal discovery to prove their claims. The Communications Decency Act, which shields websites from liability for third-party opinions posted on them, properly applies only in cases where the website serves as a neutral conveyer of the material, not where the site is accused of manipulating the reviews to exert pressure on other businesses, attorneys said in the appeal.

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Mystic Maggie

All of the Mystic Maggie Posts are RSS Reader Feeds from around the web. All copyright remains with the original publisher. No copyright is claimed or intended. Where supplied, links back to the original article are included.

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1 comment

  1. Aggrieved Customer

    Dary Jahromi, the 43-year-old founder of 24-7 Ride is an incompetent business owner. Those 1 star reviews are there for a reason. This is a company staffed by unreliable drivers and they are straight up thieves. Over half of their customers never get picked up and they never refund despite how many times you harangue them about it. Garbage company run by an incompetent thief.

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