How often have you checked out the very popular online tool Yelp before deciding whether to try a new restaurant or business?
The Team 6 Investigators have discovered that Yelp is under fire from some local businesses who claim it allows businesses to buy their way to a better review.
Antonella Capurso loves how A Azillian Hair and Spa in Pompano Beach straightens her hair and she said so in a review on Yelp but she says, “It got taken down.”
If you Google a company, anything from restaurants to boutiques, Yelp’s star ratings and the customer reviews are usually one of the first items you’ll see. But reviewers such as John Tamburello wonder why some reviews get taken down but not others.
“I saw it on the top of the list and then 24 hours later, gone,” said Tamburello.
Mo Atabani, the owner of A Azillian Hair and Spa, says thinks the way Yelp filters reviews has hurt his business.
“You can’t just take off those reviews because that’s discriminating against those people and you’re playing God,” said Atabani.
Vera Kosarev, the owner of the Fred Astaire dance studio in Coral Gables, says potential clients are only seeing mostly bad reviews – preventing them from getting any new customers.
“It’s super unfair,” says Kosarev.
What has businesses and some reviewers so upset is why certain reviews are easily seen at first glance, while other reviews are filtered on pages most people would never see, but it goes deeper. Some businesses told us Yelp tried to extort them, saying it could help with negative reviews if they advertised.
Karyna Morales, the manager of Honey Pets in Weston, says: “If you don’t agree to what they have to sell you get cheated out of good reviews.”
From Florida to California, the Team 6 Investigators found businesses making similar claims – some have gone to court.
San Diego lawyer Julian McMillan won a $2,700 judgment against Yelp. He alleged Yelp told him if he wanted to keep his good reputation, then advertise.
This is what Judge Peter Doft said in court: “It is the modern-day version of the Mafia going to stores and saying, ‘You wanna not be bothered? You wanna not be – you wanna not have incidents in your store? Pay us protection money. We'll – we'll – we'll keep you safe.’"
McMillan said, “There is no question they are abusing their power as an Internet giant to you know, basically as the judge put it, extort money from small businesses.”
But those Yelp reviews and its star rating system really matter – according to a Harvard study, gaining one star can increase business 5 to 9 percent.
The Doral Vineyard Church has seen a 75 percent drop in those coming to try Sunday service, according to Pastor Ralph Gomez. He says one false review that called his church a cult is to blame.
Gomez says, “It would scare anybody that was looking for a church. It calls us a sect … I was shocked … to read the content of that so-called review.”
On its website, Yelp posts a cartoon on how its filters are designed to prevent fake reviews and admits not every good, honest review makes it.
The cartoon says: “Our engineers are working to make sure that whatever is up there is the most unbiased and accurate information … All reviews that live on people’s profile page go through a remarkable filtering process. It takes the reviews that are the most trustworthy and from the most established sources and displays them on the business page. This keeps less trustworthy reviews out.”
Yelp chose not to talk to the Team 6 Investigators on camera and in a statement said: “… we intentionally do not disclose how our filter works as doing so would allow people to game the system …”
Yelp also told Team 6 that its filtering “…. works the same for advertisers and non-advertisers. There is no amount of money a business can pay Yelp to manipulate reviews and our filter doesn't punish those who don't advertise. Period.”
Yelp says it will prevail in its court battles.
As for Pastor Gomez, his prayers were eventually answered – that negative review disappeared.
Yelp says the claims by the South Florida businesses are false.
McMillan still hasn’t received his $2,700 because a higher court told him he has to prove his case in arbitration. Federal law protects Yelp from being held responsible for what’s actually said in the reviews, as it’s just transmitting others’ opinions.