Web Site's Advertising Practices Criticized

Photo: A Yelp.com sticker appears on a case of Ciao Bella Gelato. Some businesses say the Web site offered to highlight positive reviews in exchange for buying an advertising package.
Jacquelyn Hoffman/Photo
A Yelp.com sticker appears on a case of Ciao Bella Gelato. Some businesses say the Web site offered to highlight positive reviews in exchange for buying an advertising package.

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A popular consumer reviews Web site has been soliciting businesses for advertisements in exchange for suppressing negative comments, some merchants say.

Yelp.com, which has accumulated 5 million user-generated reviews since 2004, sells advertising packages that allow businesses to highlight one favorite review. But some businesses say they were also given the option to make positive reviews more visible in return for advertising on the Web site.

Jean Spencer, owner of the Musical Offering Cafe on Bancroft Way, said Yelp approached her numerous times to improve her profile on the site.

"What they offered to do was to move the more positive reviews toward the top," Spencer said. "You could move more than one review to the top. You pretty much got your pick of anything you wanted to move."

But Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman denied that the company would allow businesses to reorganize reviews. He explained that reviews are ordered by the date they are written and the number of votes they receive from users.

"Businesses who advertise can put a *single* favorite review on top,"

Stoppelman said in an e-mail. "The rest of the reviews are ordered exactly the same as on any business page ... Businesses have no control over this review order."

Mary Seaton, owner of Sofa Outlet in San Mateo, said Yelp salespeople offered to eliminate poor reviews altogether.

"The Yelp person said they could enhance the positive reviews and push the negative reviews down, and then eventually have them drop off," Seaton said. "They'd just remove them. It would improve my star rating."

But Stephanie Ichinose, director of public relations at Yelp, said sponsors had no control over their star rating or the order of reviews on their profiles.

After appearing on CBS 5 news in August and complaining about Yelp's advertising policies, Selena Kellinger, owner of Razzberry Lips in San Jose, said that she received a spike in negative reviews. She doubts these reviews were from actual customers, but rather from within Yelp itself.

Robert Gaustad, owner of Bobby G's Pizzeria on University Avenue, said he refused an offer because he did not want his profile to inaccurately reflect consumers' opinions of his business.

"I basically lit into him, because I said I'd rather have every single review put in on our site in chronological order, and I'll live with it," Gaustad said.

UC Berkeley senior Farnoosh Mahdavi said she believed users had full control over the Web site's reviews and such tactics would make Yelp less credible.

"I love Yelp, (but) they're a company, and right now, especially since the economy isn't doing so well, I could see them doing whatever they can to make money," she said. "But that's not very ethical. If they suppressed the bad reviews, it would detract from the trust people have in Yelp."

Gaustad said that he was content with having reviews appear as they are generated by users.

"We don't like their business model, that if we advertise with them, they will make us look better," he said. "We don't care about that. We are what we are."


Contact Katie Meyer at [email protected]

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