Inside Yelp’s Wasp Nest: When Social Networking Meets Extortion

If you have received a call like this one, you are likely a victim of extortion: “Hi, this is Steve calling from Yelp. You have had 400 hits on your website this month and although much of the response has been positive, you can do much better. I see there that your business has some bad reviews. Let me take care of those for you”.

This sales pitch has the perfect recipe for a business transaction: a positive tone is established, followed by creating a sense of urgency only before the rep extorts the business owner through the disguise of selling paid advertising or paying for an upgraded account.

Why Care About Yelp?

Go ahead and Google any professional service within a city location and see what comes up on the first page of the search engines. For example if you Google “dry cleaners in Seattle”, the first five results originate from Yelp. Link number one is a specific business that clearly paid a great deal of money to be at the top, the second link opens to a cluster of businesses that paid to be on this indexed feature page and the remaining links open to the dry cleaning section of Yelp’s Seattle directory. What this means is that Yelp gets lots of clicks, and the businesses with the highest ratings get more visitors and therefore more business.

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Rankings and Hogwash

But how fair is the rating system? If you are a business owner you will undoubtedly notice that many good reviews are filtered out, yet negative ones stick at the top. According to Yelp’s own FAQ page they justify their ranking system by using “filtering software to determine which reviews and tips should be filtered on any given day” and “the software looks at a wide range of data associated with every review and tip”. But Yelp provides no information on algorithms or any concrete facts-based methodology used to define and justify this “data’ they speak of.

Yelp’s FAQ page also claims “businesses cannot pay for favorable treatment”. However, in interviewing the owner of restaurant in San Diego’s Hillcrest neighborhood (who wished to remain anonymous for fear that Yelp would make his online reputation even worse), he stated that he gets at least 3 calls per month from Yelp stating that by purchasing some additional services, the reviews can be re-arranged to provide a more favorable rating of his business.

The Proof is in the Yelping

So how do you know Yelp is extorting you? It is difficult to accuse Yelp of extorting businesses unless you know what to look for when analyzing your reviews and the profiled reviewers who posted them. The business owner I interviewed noticed that after Yelp started persistently calling him, some good reviews that were once at the top filtered into non-existence only to be replaced with negative ones. Here are some things you can do to determine if you are being bamboozled by Yelp: Take weekly screen shots of your Yelp reviews showing the order in which your reviews appear. Categorize and store these images in a folder and after 8 weeks check to see if any major change has suddenly occurred, such as positive reviews dropping off.

Check the profiles of those who gave you bad reviews. If these reviewers have zero friends or no previous reviews, or if they have a limited number of reviews or friends yet their negative reviews of your business trumps positive ones left by yelpers with a rich history of consistent activity, you have the right to feel suspicious. But after analyzing your ranking trends, it will be apparent that yelp’s supposed software will have ultimately lowered your star rating and around the same time you will likely get a phone call from Yelp headquarters in which they offer to put out the very fire they set.


We all know that one tactic for escaping the rays of a negative spotlight is to re-direct the wrongdoing on others. Blog Fox Media reports that Yelp is offending members of its Elite community by sending them harassing letters accusing them of writing fake reviews for money, yet Yelp refuses to disclose what specific reviews are being held in suspect. So why doesn’t Yelp let its members know which reviews are being investigated? Because most people are capable of putting two and two together; if Yelp is indeed rearranging reviews to alter a company’s star rating in order to extort that business, but an Elite member writes a positive review that puts a damper on their attempt to “create” a qualified customer to extort, Yelp will be forced to change its tactics.

Discuss This Article

Comments: 9

  • Anne says:

    That is not the Yelp Sales Pitch. Also, no matter if you pay or not you can’t remove reviews. Get accurate info.

    • Michelle says:

      What is the sales pitch Anne? And please disclose whether you are a business owner, a yelper, or a yelp employee.

    • Jen Saunders says:

      This was the sales pitch recorded by the business owner I interviewed, and he was indeed told that his reviews could be “arranged” to give him a better star rating if he paid for additional services. How long have you worked for Yelp, Anne?

    • Daniel A. Bernath says:

      I am filing a class action lawsuit against Yelp for this sort of unethical behavior on behalf of harmed business (some were run OUT of business by Yelp).
      I have talked with 300 merchants so far and ALL of them say thaat this is exactly the sales pitch by Yelp with variations. We also have a tape of a Yelp, Inc. salesman/extortionist stating that now that they are close to an advertising contract that he will take the merchants listing “active.” Immediately thereafter his negatives disappeared and his positives went to the top as did his star ranking. Smoking Gun, Jeremy?

  • Layla M says:

    I would be interested to hear the recording. Many business owners claim that Yelp calls them all the time but I suspect more often then not, it’s a 3rd party claiming to represent Yelp, or worse, a 3rd party reputation management claiming to BE Yelp. I have numerous friends who work for Yelp and every time they hear something about Yelp extorting they actually get angry that people still believe this. You can also see that most businesses on Yelp actually have good ratings, and alot of times filtered reviews include poor ratings. The 500+ law suits on Yelp have all been dismissed for lack of evidence, so I assume that any recordings out there have been debunked as not Yelp employees, or they simply do not exist. Many times rumors just get perpetuated, and it’s easier for a business owner to believe that Yelp is ruining their reputation, rather than that they can’t run a successful business.

    Not disagreeing with you, just playing devils advocate. You can’t accuse someone of something with out clear, solid, evidence.

    • Jen Saunders says:

      Thanks for the feedback Layla. When this individual told me his story with Yelp and how he was receiving multiple calls I asked him to record the next one. They all came from a 415 area code (Yelp’s area) and this salesperson on the phone also walked him through his Yelp profile, including where to go onto Yelp’s website to send a request to pay for advertising and other features (so obviously he worked for Yelp). I have also heard these complaints from other businesses but I only reported on what I heard first-hand. I think it is a fascinating topic worth further research.

  • Layla M says:

    Good point, 415 is definitely Yelp’s area code in SF. With lots of business owners in my family I find the topic interesting too. I probably spend more time reading articles on it than I should haha. I just know that the CEO (Jeremey)is taking MAJOR steps to try and prove and tell everyone that Yelp is not extorting, it seems crazy that he wouldn’t of thought of someone just simply recording a sales pitch and using it in court. And with all the court cases being dismissed for no evidence, it almost seems that extortion can’t be the case…or else they certainly would of been caught by now. Right? Anyone with half a brain can use a voice recorder device.

    I’m sure with Yelp being more and more popular the truth will come out soon. IMO they just need to work on that awful filter! It’s WAY too harsh and that’s really the root of all these problems anyway. Or at least make it easier for consumers to see the filtered reviews, the captche (sp?) they make us type in is horrible.

    Thanks for the article though! Always a great read, and if you ever get that recorded call please post. And then have that business owner save it and use it in court, haha.

    • Jen Saunders says:

      Thanks Layla. I tried my best to get him to legally sign the recording over to me and I did go over the reasons why he should come forward with it. But even if he did Yelp would probably find a way to save face, i.e. claim the rep went off script or flat out deny he was one of theirs. And I believe you are right; the truth will eventually come out. And if I am wrong, my apologies to Yelp, but based on what I have seen and heard, I think Yelp is shady.

  • Rob says:

    I’ve been literally driven out of business by Yelp since most people check reviews on Yelp and Yelp distorts and lies giving my business an horrid false image. I’ve come to the point to either go by their office and firebomb all or kidnap Mr. Stoppelmann and read him the riot act. I’m not kidding. I lost all business, nothing more to loose.

    Today (Jan. 6, 2014) I got an email from Yelp that my business description edit was not approved by the despotic autocrat. Evidently Yelp does not like negative comments about their practices! I wonder just how does the 1st amendment the often quoted “freedom of speech” actually works, if it is for real at all.

    Here is what they wrote I had written/edited.
    The following changes you made to your Yelp Business Owners Account weren’t approved:

    You get what you pay for. Please also read our hidden (courtesy Yelp’s “not recommended”) positive reviews Yelp does not want you to see …. We are “A” rated by the Better Business Bureau. Look us up!
    It all started out with little projects, solving and providing solutions for our clientele that no one else could or did. The typical: other contractors had walked away from “5 minutes before all was done” leaving a mess and details undone. Our ethics guiding principles are to always deliver 100% to the utmost satisfaction of the client. Only then it’s right! “Word of mouth” reputation that we do the job and adhere to the business principle and ethics “The client is always right” earned us quickly a highly trusted reputation and a loyal and returning customer base!

    Yup, that’s not good for this “North Korea” operation Yelp.
    Maybe next is they need to approve what materials and tools I can use….

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