San Francisco-based review site Yelp.com trademarked the slogan, "Real People. Real Reviews." And the company estimates some 29 million people visit the site a month, looking for the best places to eat, shop, drink and do, well, whatever.
But some business owners have accused the company of brutal sales tactics -- some say extortion -- to coerce businesses to advertise alonside reviews. The company will add negative reviews and remove positive ones if businesses don't spend $300 or more to advertise on the site, some business owners say.
Sunita Sharma owns Skin Adore in Fremont. With 55 reviews and an average rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars at the time of this post, Sharma has an enviable presence on Yelp. Clients rave about her thread-wielding skills and ability to shape pesky eyebrows.
But the esthetician and facial spa owner refuses to put up a "People Love Us On Yelp" sticker because she disagrees with their sales tactics and ethics.
“They started calling me and harassing me," she said.
She said Yelp's salespeople told her for $500 a month, she could get more exposure on Yelp and better "control" of her reviews. Each time she refused, Sharma says she noticed her positive reviews would be removed from her business profile page, and negative reviews would suddenly appear.
She's not alone. Dozens of business owners have stepped forward with similar stories. Dr. Calvin Gee of Haight Street Dental says he consulted an attorney about suing Yelp for what he calls “malicious business practices.” He says he felt “bullied,” and that Yelp sales people badgered him constantly. He too said he was told his negative reviews would be removed if he advertised with Yelp.
Yelp denied these claims.
"Yelp does not remove or reorder reviews for money," the company said in a statement. "Our sales team is prohibited from writing reviews on Yelp so there is no bias."
Yelp spokesperson Chantelle Karl said reviews are only deleted if they violate the site's terms of service, or if the person who wrote the review removes it. But the company said some reviews may disappear and reappear later because of Yelp's review filter, which uses a proprietary algorithm designed to weed out reviews written by owners or their friends or competing businesses.
The filter has been used since the site launched in 2005, Karl siad.
"Of course, it's evolved over the years; it's an algorithm our engineers are constantly working on," he said. "Its purpose, however, remains the same: to protect consumers and business owners."
Karl said these reviews are not deleted -- they are always shown on the user's public profile, and may reappear on the business listing page. Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman explained the review filter on the site's blog, too.
Yelp said it is committed to ensuring its content is "authentic and trustworthy." The company recently hired a "manager of local business outreach" to educate business owners about the site and how it can work for them.
Sharma said plenty of customers have come to her after reading Yelp reviews, and for that she's grateful.
“My customers, whatever they want to write about my business, they are free to write," she said. "I am also open to criticism. Thankfully I have good reviews.”
But she has no plans to advertise with Yelp. She said she’ll let her customer service take care of her by online word of mouth.