Schafer: Yelp fosters suspicion among small businesses

  • Article by: LEE SCHAFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 16, 2014 - 1:09 PM

Suspicions are growing among small business owners that Yelp is manipulating reviews and turning critical of companies that don't advertise with it.

Photo: Scott Eells, Bloomberg

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Lymarie Jimenez opened Sugar Love Bakery in Woodbury in January, and so far she’s doing well.

She even caught a break by having the space next door leased by a bridal shop, a great neighbor for someone in the wedding cake business.

Now, if she could only keep Yelp from ruining her life.

What, isn’t Yelp a harmless and helpful crowdsourced consumer review site? Not to Jimenez, who believes that nearly 20 positive reviews of her business were suppressed by Yelp, while two negative reviews are prominently displayed as “recommended.”

To her the only logical explanation is retribution for her declining to advertise with Yelp.

Her experience is far from an isolated case. Yelp denies that it does this sort of thing, but it has been the subject of frequent complaints to regulators and a number of lawsuits.

Serious misdeeds have never been proved. But if I were Jimenez, I’d be suspicious, too.

Within weeks of opening she got a call from Yelp, an advertising pitch from a call center in Arizona.

Yelp may have had more than 53 million reviews written on its site since its founding, but the way it makes its money is largely from advertising.

Jimenez turned Yelp down.

Within a couple of days a one-star review showed up, she said, the first review by that poster. That means he opened a Yelp account just to write something bad about her bakery.

She didn’t think much of it, as some great reviews were showing up, too. Over the next few days, however, all of the positive reviews left the site. The negative review stayed.

As Jimenez was telling her story this week, there were four recommended reviews on the Sugar Love page. Two were from so-called “elites,” a kind of Yelp super reviewer. One was for three stars and the other was for five stars, the highest rating.

There were also two one-star reviews. One called the staff “extremely rude and immature,” and the other didn’t have anything specific to say other than that he was disappointed. Both were the only such reviews either one had ever posted.

For a more complete view of what customers really think, here’s a tip: Click on the link at the bottom of the page for reviews that aren’t “recommended” by Yelp. There one finds just one one-star review of the bakery — and 18 four- or five-star reviews.

How are reviews filtered?

These reviews had been “filtered” by Yelp. The filter is a black box, an algorithm, created by Yelp to block reviews that seem fake. Part of the reason business owners don’t trust Yelp is that it’s never said much about what happens inside its black box.

Some of the 19 blocked reviews on Sugar Love were by people who had made no other reviews. Jimenez said she can understand the algorithm deciding these were not real. But why continue to recommend the two one-star reviews, also by first-time contributors? What made them seem more real?

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