Hot Water Rising Over Alleged Yelp Advertising Shenanigans

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Mar 9, 2009 4:20PM

2007_10_yelplogo.jpgYelp!, the user content-generated website that touts itself as "real people, real reviews," has come under fire in recent weeks over allegations their advertising sales team has been contacting businesses offering to "move down" negative reviews of their establishments in exchange for advertising on the site.

It's only the latest in a series of affronts facing the company, ranging from allegations that rave reviews can be bought to its stumbles with transparency and accountability and the practice of some Yelpers to not even engage with anonymity. But it's the advertising story that won't go away; it's even gotten to the point where Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman has aggressively combated the allegations in mainstream media, his own blog, and Twitter.

Now some of Our Town's restaurateurs are coming forward with their own claims about the unscrupulous workings of Yelp's ad sales team. Both Ina's owner Ina Pinkney and Patty Rothman of More Cupcakes told the Tribune's Monica Eng that Yelp staffers offered to "rearrange" their reviews so that positive ones would be the first readers would see in exchange for sponsoring a Yelp event for free (Rothman obliged). Stoppelman told Eng, "'I guarantee that there is no link between' review placement and advertising." Cindy Kurman, owner of Kurman Communications, said that Yelp is "a good idea and great marketing tool." Kurman speaks from experience: one of her clients is Dine!, which shelled out $1500 to host an event in 2006 for Yelp reviewers, although a Dine spokesperson at the time said that reviewers were not obligated to write reviews.

The main issue here is one of transparency. Yelp is far and away the most popular user review site on the web, particularly for nascent foodies looking for an opinion of a particular restaurant. A vindictive or outright false review from a user can have some restaurant owners sweating at night. A couple have even expressed concern to us about the implications of a negative Yelp review. In a wild frontier like the Web, one negative review can spiral into a echo chamber that a business owner can find tough to fight. Given the vigor with which Stoppelman has fought to combat the allegations, it makes one wonder if he seems to be protesting a bit too much.