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Continued: Schafer: Yelp fosters suspicion among small businesses

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

There’s no phone number to call, she said, so she said she just dialed extensions in the call center until someone picked up his phone. She got that person to agree that her review history seemed odd. But he wasn’t going to do anything about it.

“They kept saying, ‘It’s not us, it’s the software,’ ” she said. “If it’s their software, then fix it.”

Her aggravation with Yelp isn’t confined to the curious placement of reviews. She didn’t really appreciate feeling pressure to advertise on the Yelp page featuring her business in order to keep her competition from advertising there.

She didn’t create this page for her business or ask for it, but she needed to spend $300 a month to keep a competitor from advertising there?

That sounded kind of thuggish.

On the other hand, it’s more or less how publishers of the Yellow Pages made their money for years.

The ads now there are for a row of businesses at the bottom under the heading “Best of Yelp Woodbury — Bakeries.” The only thing notable here is that none is actually in Woodbury.

Accusations of extortion

Harvard Business School Prof. Michael Luca said he has heard from small-business owners like Jimenez before, because he’s been studying crowdsourced review sites like Yelp for several years. His first paper found that good Yelp ratings can lift the sales of independent restaurants while doing next to nothing for sales at chains. That’s great for small businesses.

Then, he said, he started getting calls and e-mails from owners talking about extortion.

Part of the hostility comes from the structure of Yelp’s business, he said, the “tension” of seeking ad dollars from businesses rated on Yelp’s site. Another issue is that Yelp can’t just open up its black box to show how it filters reviews, for fear of making it easier for cheaters to game the system.

He later tried to figure out how ad clients fared with the review filter, whether it was true that advertisers were getting more of their five-star reviews shown and more one-star reviews filtered. And, he said, “that’s just factually inaccurate.”

The company’s spokeswoman, of course, said “there has never been any amount of money a business can pay Yelp to manipulate reviews, and our automated recommendation software does not ‘punish’ those who decline to advertise.” A follow-up e-mail suggested that in the case of Sugar Love the filter was doing its job.

Jimenez sounds like she’s done listening to Yelp’s explanations, but there apparently is conventional wisdom on how owners should play Yelp.

One idea is to immediately respond to negative reviews in a professional tone that asks what could be done better next time. Another is to ask happy regular customers to jump on Yelp to review, and coach them how to fill out a full profile and review others, all with an eye toward not getting filtered.

And Jimenez’s rating has improved from Monday, with the positive review from Lee S. of St. Paul now on top of the Sugar Love page.

“I knew to expect mostly sweets and desserts,” it reads. “But for breakfast they had a cinnamon brioche twist, and it was terrific.”

I can confirm that was a legitimate, paying customer review. It’ll be interesting to see whether it stays “recommended.”

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

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