Sunday, November 06, 2011

Yelp and the Business of Extortion 2.0 | Feature | Oakland, Berkeley & Bay Area News & Arts Coverage:

The phone calls came almost daily. It started to get creepy.

"Hi, this is Mike from Yelp," the voice would say. "You've had three hundred visitors to your site this month. You've had a really good response. But you have a few bad ones at the top. I could do something about those."

This wasn't your average sales pitch. At least, not the kind that John, an East Bay restaurateur, was used to. He was familiar with, the popular San Francisco-based web site in which any person can write a review about nearly any business. John's restaurant has more than one hundred reviews, and averages a healthy 3.5-star rating. But when John asked Mike what he could do about his bad reviews, he recalls the sales rep responding: "We can move them. Well, for $299 a month." John couldn't believe what the guy was offering. It seemed wrong.

In fact, something seemed shady about the state of his restaurant's negative reviews. "When you do get a call from Yelp, and you go to the site, it looks like they have been moved," John said. "You don't know if they happen to be at the top legitimately or if the rep moved them to the top. You don't even know if this is someone who legitimately doesn't like your restaurant. ... Almost all the time when they call you, the bad ones will be at the top."

Usually, John said, he would politely decline to advertise. "Well, thanks," he'd say. "I'll talk to my partner about it." Or, "It's not really in my budget right now." But inevitably, in another week or so, he'd get another phone call. Occasionally, the voice on the other end of the phone would change, but the calls continued. These days, John chooses to not answer his phone when it's from a number with a 415 area code.