With the Web site Yelp still responding to allegations by San Francisco businesses that it manipulates the prominence of positive and negative reviews, some Chicago merchants are adding to the heat.
They allege that Yelp representatives have offered to rearrange positive and negative reviews for companies that advertise on the site or sponsor Yelp Elite parties.Ina Pinkney of Ina's restaurant in the West Loop said that last summer a Yelp salesperson offered to "move up my good reviews if I sponsored one of their events. They called it rearranging my reviews."
Other Chicago businesses told the Tribune of similar experiences but asked to remain anonymous.
Since the allegations were first reported in a San Francisco alternative weekly in mid-February, Yelp's CEO Jeremy Stoppelman has been taking his side of the story in this controversy to the Web, the media and even Twitter.
In a conversation with the Tribune, Stoppelman denied the allegations, saying, "I guarantee that there is no link between" review placement and advertising. He said that the people selling the ads have no access to the architecture of the site and so cannot influence placement or review content.
"While it's possible that there is a game of telephone going on and certain people misunderstood what was being offered, I think we have so many safeguards and rules in place that people should know what they are getting into."
Yelp launched in San Francisco in 2004 and today boasts branches in most major American cities, including Chicago. It was founded as a place where ordinary people could share opinions on local businesses. Yelp says that in January 2009 its sites were used by 18.5 million unique visitors, up from 7 million in January 2008.
Local restaurant marketer Cindy Kurman calls Yelp "a good idea and great marketing tool."
She also says it's widely believed in the Chicago restaurant community that "if you are a Yelp advertiser or sponsor you are going to have the opportunity for more favorable reviews. But I think the whole thing should be clear to the consumer and Yelp shouldn't take a holier-than-thou attitude about it."
In defending Yelp's practices, Stoppelman said most recently on a post on Yelp's official blog, "We have every reason to trust the smart, hard-working and ethical salespeople who work at Yelp."
On the blog he said that Yelp safeguards against such practices by ensuring that salespeople don't sit on the same floor as those who can manipulate the site; salespeople sign an agreement that they will not post reviews while they are employed at Yelp; and advertisers are asked to confirm by phone and Internet survey that they understand their ads are not connected to reviews. He even cited an instance when a salesperson was fired for encouraging a friend to post a positive review about a prospective advertiser.
Since the allegations first emerged, other businesses have come forward with claims. One is attorney Jason Luros. Last fall, Luros says, there were two positive reviews for his law firm, Hudson & Luros in Napa, Calif.
"But then one of our reviews mysteriously disappeared," he told the Tribune. "So I contacted Yelp and was given the usual canned response about how no humans control the reviews. But when I said I would consider advertising if they restored the review, it mysteriously reappeared."
Lorenzo Puertas says his restaurant Croll's Pizza & Deli in Alameda, Calif., also garnered several good reviews on Yelp, but when he turned down an offer to advertise with the site last fall, "at least three good reviews disappeared, and since then we've gotten nothing but bad reviews."
Although the Tribune talked to several businesses that allege they were offered or received favors for advertising or sponsorship and vice versa, many also reported good experiences with Yelp. "I've had nothing but positive experiences with Yelp," said Gina Karatasios, co-owner of Venus in Greektown. "Even when I called to cancel my ad with them before the contract expired, they were nice about it."
But as the Tribune learned during a chefs round table last summer, citizen Internet review sites have proved mixed blessings to many merchants. These sites, they say, can be sources of praise and constructive criticism but also vicious attacks.
Consequently, many, especially restaurateurs, have developed a strained relationship with the site and its Yelpers. Chicago chef Graham Elliot Bowles is one of them. He says he has had his "account removed" for personally contacting those whom he felt posted reviews that were "baseless, lacking in truth or intentionally hurtful."
The chef gets especially annoyed when diners arrive and announce they are reviewing for Yelp.
"That tends to rub us the wrong way, and I won't hesitate to call people out," he says. "This doesn't apply to all Yelpers, just the slimy ones that flat out say they will be 'reviewing' us. I think there has to be a certain respect between both parties in the customer-restaurant relationship."
Since the stories broke, Stoppelman says they have gone over practices at the company to see whether they could have inadvertently contributed to some of the perceptions. He says they are also considering a system that will allow business owners to respond publicly to what they feel are unfair reviews.
"We need to reach out to the restaurant community and local businesses and chambers of commerce more," he said. "Even on the content side I have been blogging and we have been adding more to our help site. As we have grown in importance, we are understanding more that the system seems mysterious and confusing. So we are trying to create more ways for the users to understand us."