Samantha Satchell, creator and owner of the Owings Mills-based fitness program Maverick Dance Party, ran into this problem last month.
At the recommendation of a Living Social employee, Satchell created a Yelp page in December. Looking to partner with the online coupon company for a Maverick-related deal, Satchell was told a Yelp page could improve the offer's chances of approval. So she asked a number of regular customers to write reviews, and many happily obliged. ("I talk about her to other people I know anyway, so this was another way to get it out there," said Anna James, a 26-year-old customer from Lutherville.)
But the Maverick Dance Party Yelp page is barren of user-generated content. To read the 14 posts — all fawning, five-star reviews from first-time reviewers — from Satchell's students, you must find the page of "filtered reviews," an arguably easy-to-miss link. Then, a user must enter a two-phrase "reCAPTCHA" code before gaining access to the reviews.
The filtering process soured Satchell on Yelp.
"I asked these people to do me a favor and they did, and they weren't heard," Satchell said. "It makes the whole process look really bad. It's unprofessional."
While Yelp's website says businesses should "probably not" explicitly ask customers to write reviews, it does not explain how the filtering system works. Holloway says there is a misconception that the automated system (which, he says, "has some of the best engineering minds in Silicon Valley" regularly tweaking it) filters out only positive reviews, but that is not the case. It does filter out more positive than negative reviews because, according to Yelp, 80 percent of the reviews are rated three stars or higher.
When asked for details regarding the system's process, he declined, due to security reasons.
"We don't publicly disclose what makes the filter work," Holloway said. "It would defeat the process. There are people trying to adjust and reverse the system. But I can tell you the same set of rules are being put across Yelp's systems."
A major criticism against Yelp is its seemingly anonymous reviews. While you must create a Yelp account with a valid email address to contribute reviews, there's no guarantee the user provided his or her real name. For some consumers, that makes the subscription-based website Angie's List an attractive alternative.
With nearly 30,000 subscribers in the Baltimore area (and more than 1.5 million in America), Angie's List requires users to provide personal information, including a home address, to validate a new account. Upon submitting a review, a user will be reminded that his or her name and address will be shared, upon request, with the business that was reviewed.
Angie's List — whose yearly subscription costs $35 in Baltimore — places a premium on accountability for both its businesses and users. For this reason, it has never considered publishing anonymous reviews, according to Cheryl Reed, director of communications.
"Over the years, corporate leadership has looked at just about everything, but never have we considered going anonymous," Reed said. "It weakens the veracity of the information, and we're not willing to do that. Our members believe it's worth the price of admission." (Angie's List's third quarter revenue report from 2012, which showed a year-to-date increase of 75 percent to $109.6M, supports this claim.)
While the two companies differ on access fees, Angie's List and Yelp are both adamant that businesses cannot pay money — through sponsorship or otherwise — to remove or change the order of negative reviews.
Regardless of which sites consumers choose to use, the growing prominence of Yelp, Angie's List and online reviews in general is hard to ignore.
Amy Burke Friedman, vice president of the Baltimore public relations agency Profiles, Inc. — whose clients include Ra Sushi Bar Restaurant, B&O American Brasserie and the Maryland Athletic Club & Wellness Center — says she stresses to clients the importance of heightening their Internet presences through not only Facebook and Twitter, but also Yelp and Urbanspoon, a similar site.
"People who participate in Yelp are an audience we really value, and we stress to restaurants to care," Friedman said. "That's customer feedback that should be taken seriously, whether it's positive or negative. It's an opportunity to learn and grow."
Richard Lee, a Fells Point resident and active Yelp-er who describes his reviews as "self-contained short stories," says these sites help consumers make better-informed decisions, especially in Baltimore, where there's no shortage of competition.
"People deserve to know because there are so many places to go," Lee, 31, said. "These businesses need to fight for your money every day."
Edwardsen — who ultimately deciding against, but considered, paying public relations companies to write positive reviews after his own frustrations with Yelp's filter system — agrees, albeit begrudgingly.
"I hate Yelp," Edwardsen said with a laugh. "But we're a much better restaurant than we would be if Yelp weren't around."
An earlier version of this story misrepresented the number of positive reviews caught by Yelp's filter. The automated system filters more positive than negative reviews from users.