back to article Yelp 'pay to play' pitch makes shops scream for help

When it debuted in July of 2004, Yelp reinvented the notion of online city guides, giving "real people" the power to write "real reviews." For many, it represents the best of something called Web 2.0, a site built by you and me and everyone else. But in its struggle to turn clicks into cash, the San Francisco startup has been …


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  1. Jason Harvey

    another 2.0 company that started with a good idea

    but is now going to run it into the ground by not following their own procedures.

    note to all you 2.0 freaks and people worried about on-line reviews. people lie. and when they do, do like rugs. the good part about it is that you then get to step on them.

    best to ignore the obnoxious and it seems yelp is falling into that category.

  2. Herby

    Need a Yelp review on Yelp itself.

    Then some of those with complaints might be heard. Then again, Yelp could shift those reviews to the bottom with sponsorship. So, Yelp sponsors itself. Maybe they could make money doing it this way....

    Never mind...

  3. J-Wick

    The overwhelming majority of people are idiots

    Most people commenting on things online are idiots*. I'd prefer to read the opinion of a knowledgable, well-trusted individual, on a subject matter they understand, and can explain to the general public. That could be food, IT, current events, history, whatever.

    I listen to the BBC and NPR, but don't think the opinions of a hairdresser from Acton nor a a mechanic from Des Moines really adds anything to the discussion of today's news - they should shut the hell up and let someone know whose job it is to understand and describe politics / economics / history / whatever talk instead. (i.e. I think BBC HYS and NPR phone-ins are a waste of time)

    Yelp is similiar - I have no way of knowing whether any reviews will apply to me, since my tastes and tolerances will be different to the reviewer. And if there are 20 reviews, 11 positive, 9 negative, it's really of no use at all!

    *I'm fully aware of the irony & think that it applies to me more than anyone else. :)

  4. RW
    Thumb Down

    The PayPal Connection

    Reading that the three Yelp principals are all ex-PayPal people, I immediately thought "well, Yelp's guaranteed to be a functional mess, then, and probably unethical to boot."

    As, indeed, Yelp seems to be.

    Important newsflash, everyone: touting your ex-PayPal credentials is not a positive career move.

  5. David Barr

    An Article Summary

    It seems that Yelp does not allow businesses to push the bad reviews under the carpet... however their sales team claims it does in order to get the bucks in.

    If this was the UK and Yelp was a bank the FSA would have them for breakfast. And the FSA are pretty toothless.

    Oh, and the other lesson is that business owners are paranoid about bad reviews, and seem unlikely to accept that what goes around comes around, and idiot reviews will appear for every business, and it'll average out over time.

    And the final one appears to be that Yelp don't give a shit if a review is bad and inaccurate, or slanderous, as long as it makes good reading. They do however care if business try to manipulate the reviews in a positive way.

  6. Mike Kim

    Stoppleman Not Very Credible

    When I recently purchased my iPhone, Yelp was one of the first apps that I loaded - it was free and seemed fairly useful. Based on the information presented in this article, it seems as though any clicks or page visits I make to the site would simply add more leverage to a company that does stupid things with it.

    I'm removing my Yelp app and encouraging friends and family to stop using Yelp until I hear a report that demonstrates that Yelp has dealt with its own "issues" as Stoppleman urges of the businesses on its site.

    Stoppleman claims that the assertions of the businesses are not true and challenged people to find a business whose bad reviews were pushed to the bottom of the reviews list. If the software isn't designed to do so, then of course no business would be able to point out an instance of it happening, but that doesn't mean that the businesses weren't bamboozled into thinking that their payments would actually do it.

    Stoppleman lacks credibility for the way he dodges the question about . The accounts of the business owners seem much more credible. The fact that Yelp admitted to removing positive reviews for "gaming" the system and refusing to remove the reviews containing personal attacks puts Yelp squarely in the wrong.

  7. Jim Westrich


    I have only made a handful of reviews on Yelp for places I frequent and had a knowledgeable angle on. But that actually made me feel uncomfortable as this article confirms--the small businesses look at their Yelp pages and know who you are! I always gave positive reviews of places I frequent but I could not help but notice that it got a little awkward at my favorite lunch spot at the time for about a week after I gave them 4 out 5 stars.

    The weird business angle is that some businesses put up Yelp! approved signs in their windows. I always wondered how that worked--do they pay for that (it seems that they most likely do from this article)? One place with the sign was not very good and I wondered if it was possible to lower the ratings enough to get the sign removed. I never gave that place a bad review both because it seemed pointless and the owner was really nice--just the food was bad and overpriced.

  8. Lukin Brewer

    Shades of Wikipedia

    User-generated content; wankers and people with agendas start using it; it affects the real world; dissenters get flame ganked; the people in charge take sides in line with their own view of reality...

    Except that Jimbo Wales never tried to monetise the results of this on his site by selling "protection" from (or indeed "relegation" of) malicious edits.

  9. David

    Yelp pays for reveiws to be written!

    How can they be impartial when they pay people called "Scouts" to write reviews about businesses all over the country? They write the reviews, so they control the content too. And can manipulate it. Want proof, go here - this is a paid review writer employed by Yelp

  10. David

    Only 3.5 stars and up can be Sponsors? BS

    The statement about only accepting advertising from businesses with 3.5 stars and up is not true. There are many businesses under that, even with the trolls that post 5 star reveiws, to bump up the ratings. Here's an example of a business that barely keeps 3 stars -

  11. Jeff
    Thumb Down

    Blackmail 2.0

    Plain and simple.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Web2 mafiaso.

    This reads like mafia style standover tactics. "You cooperate and come up with the protection cash, we don't burn down your business or break your legs."

    Where is the accountability with this yeIp? Looks like this web2 stuff needs regulations made for it so it can be overseen, audited etc so business can trust it. I am sure business would like to able to challenge reviews that seem malicious. It would good to see sites like yeIp stand behind the reviews and reviewers they allow and be prepared to compensate businesses that can be proved to damaged by yeIp.

    Regulation might make might a marginal business model like web2 unprofitable at all, which some people might see as a good thing, especially yeIp victims.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    How to the restaurants know the sales people are legit

    I wonder if the restaurant owners know for sure that the people who contacted them were real Yelp sales-people? I guess if they were impostors, the scam would come undone when it came time to hand over the money.

  14. GettinSadda

    Solution (c) by Me

    There is a simple solution to the click-tracking and Yelp (or others) are free to use it as long as they credit me!

    Each Yelp page of a sponsor could have an IFrame containing a brief description of the business that is hosted by the business itself (or a nominated other party). Now every view of the Yelp page gets a request in the businesses own server log.

    There would need to be some mechanism to prevent that IFrame being used to launch browser attacks, but an automated bot from Yelp could read the called frames on a rotating list to check that the contained plain HTML with no images scripts etc.

    The IFrame should probably even call in a standard css from Yelp to keep the look right.

  15. marc lyne

    Its all about self service - credit humans with some intelligence

    Regarding the Yelp business model; having spent many years in the Directory industry, I know that as soon as you get sales people trying to sell, they are under pressure to beat sales targets, some will do anything to achieve this and that means fabricating the truth and bending any rules as far as they can. Unfortunately the result is a conflict- sales v’s users v’s businesses. As this post correctly identifies, one way to resolve part of this conflict is to remove one of the forces and that is what web 2.0 has allowed us to do… its all about self service.

    Regarding reviews, I think we all have to credit humans with a little more intelligence and allow them to exercise a human judgment on reviews shown, if a business has ridiculously flattering reviews from EVERYONE it gets pretty suspect. It seems that technology companies always try to 'program' for every problem, forgetting that us human users can actually make a judgment. What happens in the real world? We listen to other opinions but we don’t just blindly follow them do we. So why is there a need to editorially filter reviews?

    Whilst there are many of these ‘review’ sites, I want to single out The Brownbook ( - yes, I am involved with this site, but that doesn’t mean my view is irrelevant) because there are none of these rules that say a business owner can’t join the conversation and respond to reviews. Indeed we try to mirror what happens in the real world - yes it’s a free-for-all, but that is reality, we shouldn’t have ‘review police’ stopping business owners from speaking back or their friends speaking out, this happens in the real world.

  16. Joe K

    RottenTomatoes & Metacritic

    2 sites that have also been ruined by giving any old gobshite with a keyboard an assumption that they are a professional critic.

    All critics are arseholes, and so are most people.

  17. Anomalous Cowherd Silver badge

    Wouldn't fly in the UK

    Few years ago I ran a website allowing IT contractors to review their agencies. They could vote and they could comment. As you might imagine, for some the comments section quickly filled up with bile and we started fielding some pretty angry agencies.

    Bottom line legally was in the UK, if someone libels you online then the website publisher has to remove it once notified (think Godfrey v Demon). In the US, provided the reviews are not themselves reviewed by the hosting site then they're acting as a "common carrier" and aren't liable for their content. This only applies if the comments are unregulated however - if Yelp are claiming to monitor the comments then I believe they can be held responsible for them.

    Incidentally some of the reviews we received would make your hair curl. The worst one on the list (now long gone) had their lawyer contact me and ask for large chunks of one review removed - this we did, and the end result was even worse: "I worked for X <redacted> was at my wits end <redacted> was diagnosed with clinical depression <redacted>". Brilliant stuff. I hope they fired their lawyer.

  18. Chris Young

    @ GettinSadda

    and of course every small business has its own web server these days

  19. Anonymous Coward

    re:Shades of Wikipedia

    "Except that Jimbo Wales never tried to monetise the results of this on his site by selling "protection" from (or indeed "relegation" of) malicious edits." Maybe better said that we just haven't yet learned how Jimbo has monetized his malicious edits. Maybe he has a barter system at work to avoid monetization.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Personally I always skip to the bad reviews on anything.

    Generally they're more interesting then positive reviews. For example if the worst thing they have to say about an indepth strategy game is "the rules are too complex for me and the graphics are rubbish" then it means I'll probably love it.

    However if they say "the game could be good, the graphics are pretty and the interface seems simple, however it's been released too early, is full of bugs, faulty logic and the AI is way too easy." Then I'll skip it.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Wouldn't fly in the UK

    Of course it can fly in the UK.

    You could libel somebody in your comments here - doesn't mean the Reg has to shut up shop. The defence against libel claims in this case would be "fair comment". If a business took issue with a review and decided to take it further, the reviewer and the publisher would then need to decide whether to fight it in court or remove the review.

    There are loads of these local review sites in the UK already - trustedplaces, london-eating, urbanpath, etc, plus sites like tripadvisor and zagat which operate globally.

  22. Bill Kellinger

    Yelp is the "Lord of the Flies" of internet companies example of what can happen with no adult supervision

  23. Saul Dobney

    Old idea being dredged up again

    it's not new as a concept - the idea flows back to 1996. It's just no-one has made it work because making money at it is going to be difficult and dangerous. If you get great ratings you have no need to advertise. So you want people to advertise on a site that might give them a bunch of bad ratings.

    But then the gaming starts. Competitors start writing bad reviews on your business. The business starts writing good reviews (Tripadvisor suffers from this). The comments descend into a mess and then someone realises Yelp are responsible for the listing and, if they are surpressing good reviews, they are artificially reducing your ratings themselves - that's corporate liable. So I wonder when the first writs will fly.

  24. Jeremy
    Thumb Down

    Yelp CEO Comments

    "Indeed, many advertisers have told The Reg that Yelp does not suppress their bad reviews."

    "Kellinger and Seaton acknowledge they drove the positive reviews."

    So the key facts are:

    The two main sources for the story make ridiculous accusations against Yelp while both admitting to the reporter that they were shilling (and those reviews were removed by Yelp). One source then also confirms that Yelp actually didn't remove their negative reviews for money.

    Jeremy, Yelp CEO

    PS Don't take my word for it (or Cade's) please see for yourself. Simply check out any Yelp sponsors page and look for negative reviews. You'll see them with a similar distribution as any other business.

  25. Anonymous Coward

    Ever notice that with the 20-something Web 2.0 COE's

    That lying and dishonesty seem to be at the core of their business models?

  26. Steven H Taylor

    Extortion 2.0

    I wonder how much Yelp is willing to pay me if I don't bump this story on Digg, Reddit and

  27. Bill Kellinger

    Driving positive reviews is Business 101


    Since when is driving positive reviews a bad thing?

    What on earth is wrong with asking a satisfied customer to spread the word?

    You refer to this as shilling ?

    Shilling is when you impersonate someone else and write reviews under an assumed name ( see Paid Yelpers or Scouts for an example).

    Bill Kellinger

  28. Mike Powers

    Kellinger is correct

    "If you had a good experience, please go write a review on Yelp" is not shilling. It's telling people that a popular review site exists so that they can go there and write a review. Jesus, don't you WANT people to know about Yelp?

    If you don't know that Yelp exists, then why would you go there and write a review of ANY kind? Are people just supposed to magically learn that Yelp exists? How can the CEO of an ADVERTISING COMPANY be this stupid?

    According to your attitude, you're only allowed to post a review on Yelp if you NEVER HEARD OF IT BEFORE. (Unless you're flaming the place, because negativity is always objective right?)

    Oh, and I like the plan, here. It's all done verbally, so there's no evidence beyond he-said-she-said. "Will nobody rid me of this meddlesome priest?"

  29. Mike Powers
    Dead Vulture

    All monsters together

    Steve Taylor: One hand washes the other. I'm pretty sure that Digg et al don't want to suddenly find their Yelp pages stuffed with awful reviews.

  30. Mike Powers
    Paris Hilton

    Another fun comment

    CEO Jeremy Stoppleman, the guy who's responsible for running the entire company, says: "There's a mathematical formula we use [to order the reviews] - I don't know it off the top of my head..."

    Wait, you fucking what? It's YOUR COMPANY and you don't know how it works?

    (Paris, 'coz the only thing on top of her head is her hair)

  31. Bill Kellinger

    The Jeremy Stoppleman Goat Rodeo

    Check out the comments on this article from in Chicago. Looks like Yelpers are starting to realize they are part of the "Jeremy Stoppleman Goat Rodeo" :

    My favorite, from Mike D ( who has written over 100 reviews) :

    I actually worked at a business and took one of these sales calls and they were definitely interested in promoting us for $$$. I actually think I'm going to cancel my membership to this site in the next few days. I've become extremely disillusioned with the site and articles like this only add to the feeling that Yelp is full of shit.

  32. Mike Powers

    I like the first response

    The first response to Mike D's post is some Yelper saying that Mike D's opinion is invalidated because he's leaving. It's like that line in Spinal Tap, where the guy says "our audience hasn't SHRUNK, it's just CLARIFIED"...

  33. Bill Kellinger

    Stoppelman Blames "Some Sort of Rogue Sales Person"

    "The latest mainstream media outlet to conduct an investigative probe into Yelp's unseemly advertising and (alleged) extortion tactics is The Register. If you've been following the saga, not many new items come to light, aside from more and more business owners coming forward and confirming what we've all suspected: that in exchange for dollars, Yelp will "help out" with negative reviews. And for the first time, CEO Jeremy Stoppelman half-acknowledges that maybe, just maybe, something illicit might be going on at Yelp HQ."

  34. James Anderson

    re: Only 3.5 stars and up can be Sponsors? BS

    I think you will find that between offering 6000 bucks and Yelp accepting your rating will just happen increase to 3.6 or above.

    The business model looks more like Capone 1.0 than Web 2.0.

  35. Bill Kellinger

    Yelp employees posing as Yelpers to generate negative review pile ons

    Here is another very strange experience from someone who wrote a Yelp review:

    Yelp's reviews can't be trusted.

    07/25/2008 Posted by BBrookens

    "Yelp's reviews can't be trusted. I wrote a negative review about an unethical company that doesn't even have a business license. Others on Yelp sent me compliments on my review, then posted their negative experiences about that same company and business owner. Then Yelp notified me that they removed my review, and when I checked, all of the reviews on that company were removed, but they left that company's ad and web site link on Yelp. Yelp would not give me an explanation or respond to my emailed questions. They are a business marketing advertising for business, using the public as a tool, and manipulating the reviews for their own profit. I also received a message form another Yelp participant like myself, then later contacted by this person asking me to remove it because he did not write it and asking me to delete it. Of course I did. He explained to me that he had contacted Yelp customer service telling them that he did not know where this mail came from and he did not write it, and was told it had to have came from with in the Yelp company. I later found that exact same message on other Yelp emails within the company. Yelp sending out phony emails to Yelp participants in members names, I guess, to try to get more network participation. I thought Yelp was a pretty good thing, but they have lost all credibility now. When I Googled Yelp I found more information. Check it out."

  36. Mike Powers

    And another good one, from LA Eater

    "...a quick comparison of the current page to an older version of the page...showed that they had removed multiple reviews –all positive- including one five-star review written by a larger-than-life local hot-dog reviewer who is quite legitimate and gets quoted in the LA Times no less. Not exactly a shill. Then with a little reading I learned that I am not the only one that this is happening to. It's a pattern: complain, and Yelp removes positive reviews."

    "...strangely, a bad review seems to appear shortly after each phone call from a Yelp sales rep. The review that I wrote to Yelp to complain about appeared shortly after my last decline to pay..."

  37. Arndt Schrader
    Thumb Down

    Anti-yelp strategies anyone ???

    So far I've seen tons of business owners complain about the site, but not a single article provides useful anti-yelp strategies. My company has been yelped with many negative, completely ridiculous reviews, and I feel that paying $500 a month for a questionable service is extortion.

  38. Mike Powers

    Yeah, ignore it

    Ignore it and wait for stories like this to force Stoppleman back to grad school.

    Read the "negative" reviews and see if there's anything substantiative. If there is, fix it. Otherwise, just be all "Yelp? What? Yelp what? Yelpachawhatcha? 1.21 Jiggawhats?"

  39. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Okay, first of all

    almost no-one looks for reviews before they go to a shop or restaurant. For products: quite likely. For shops IN THE LOCAL AREA: no.

    Chances are they have already shopped there before anyway..

    A company's "internet reputation" is hardly worth worrying about.

    Second, J-Wick

    I guess the majority ARE idiots, judging by Amazon etc.

    "I love this book, it was so great, you should go buy it. i'm only on page 4 but i can tell it's going to be sooo awesome!!11" or "This treadmill really works, I lost 2lbs in 2 days/a year."

    There's a difference between a review which says "I liked it , the food was good" or "this restaurant is terrible , I don't know how it even stays in business" compared to ACTUAL REVIEWS which say stuff like "I liked it, there was a wide range of foods to choose from, the restaurant was airy, had a good view overlooking the river, the staff were friendly and the menu points out meals suitable for vegans and celiacs"

    I don't see the problem. If they lie, they can (should) not only be able to get the review removed from the site, but the person could be in trouble legally.

    "The waiter spat in my soup and tripped me on the way to the bathroom"

    What could possibly make a restaurant look so bad? (that wouldn't be disregarded as someone who is picky/has different taste/is a troll)

    Also, people don't generally read the first few reviews and think everything is kosher. People specifically look for bad reviews, and read them to see what the problem was with the place they plan to visit/item they plan to buy. Unless the bad reviews are literally hidden somewhere, all people need to do is click a few times or scroll down a bit.

    I guess this will be the end of Yelp. But surely it's common knowledge that places will be submitting fake reviews for their own company, and possibly their competitors? Although less common knowledge that review sites will be blackmailing people.....

    Obviously someone should have recorded themselves being propositioned, as this whole story is nothing without proof of anything.

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