Pinterest Stumbleupon Whatsapp

What would you think if I told you that Yelp manipulates its rating algorithm so that businesses who refuse to advertise on Yelp end up getting positive reviews on the site “hidden” from their ranking. Unfair! An outrage! This is actually what many small businesses on Yelp believe is taking place, but is it true?

In late April, MUO was contacted by a small business (a small comic shop) that had received a phone call from a Yelp sales representative, asking him if he was interested in advertising on Yelp. The business owner refused the offer. A week later, a couple of positive reviews apparently “disappeared” from the main page — dropping the business owner’s overall score from a 4.5 down to a 3.0. The timing was beyond unusual — a coincidence that seems to be a common thread throughout the business community when the topic of Yelp’s rating system comes up.

The coincidence was so unusual, and the Internet meme regarding Yelp’s manipulations of its rating system so virulent throughout the Internet, that it was clear a full investigation into the inner-workings of Yelp’s algorithm Search For the Best & Worst Local Businesses With Yelp Search For the Best & Worst Local Businesses With Yelp Read More , and its sales organization, was in order.

This article details that investigation, starting with a collection of witness accounts on Yelp’s sales tactics, and how Yelp ratings appear to be manipulated by the company. This will be followed by an interview with Kristen Whisenand, a Yelp Senior PR Manager, and Darnell Holloway, the head of Yelp’s local business outreach in New York. Finally, you’ll find two short interviews with Yelp’s business advertisers. By the bottom of this article, you should be able to decide for yourself whether or not this Yelp review-manipulation conspiracy is true.

Evidence of Manipulation?

Business owner and blogger Cliff Biggers wrote a blog post on April 26th titled, “The Yelp Protection Racket”, where he explained that the Dr. No’s Comics & Games SuperStore in Marietta, GA had enjoyed a 4.5 rating on Yelp for some time before he refused an advertising offer from Yelp.

Within a week, according to Cliff, several legitimate positive customer reviews Get Local Reviews for Local Businesses With Yelp [iPhone] Get Local Reviews for Local Businesses With Yelp [iPhone] One of the worst issues I have with my friends is when we are driving in the car, our stomachs start rumbling, and we simply don't know where to eat. There's often tennis-like banter between... Read More were moved to the “not recommended” section. The removal had such an impact on the store’s Yelp rating that it dropped a point and a half — a tragic loss for any business depending on its Yelp rating for authority and credibility.



Cliff explained the situation to MUO as follows:

“Our ratings began to drop on Yelp soon after we declined the advertising package that was strongly promoted to us by Yelp. Suddenly all of our favorable ratings were filtered out, and favorable customer reviews stayed up on the site for a few hours or less before they, too disappeared into the NOT RECOMMENDED section.”

According to Cliff, the moment he refused to advertise on Yelp, there has been a concerted effort on Yelp’s part to not only drop the store’s rank, but to keep it down through systematic removal of all positive reviews to the “not recommended” section.

“Reviews that were on our front page prior to our declining advertising did get moved to the NOT RECOMMENDED page — and from that point out, there was a concerted policy of blocking most positive reviews of Dr. No’s. The odds of an algorithm blocking almost every positive review seem almost nonexistent.”

Three other businesses featured on Yelp who refused advertising shared similar experiences. They did so anonymously, for fear of additional attacks from the Yelp team, who they believe are manipulating reviews.

Cliff told us one business owner reported:

“Yelp made it very clear that advertising with them would result in more of my positive reviews making it to the front page.”

Another retailer called Yelp’s advertising as clear extortion. A third retailer told Cliff:

“When I told them I couldn’t afford to advertise because I was a new business, my ratings began to drop. I’m not sure if I can stay open, since restaurants are much more affected by Yelp ratings than retail stores.”

Kelly Calandro, the owner of a Connecticut restaurant named Verace, told Huffington Post in 2012 that shortly after refusing a Yelp sales’ reps offers for advertising, she saw more of her positive reviews go missing.

Yelp – A Business of Extortion?

Back in 2009, there was an expose published in the local newspaper in Oakland, California called the East Bay Express.  During our interview with Yelp (printed below), we were told East Bay Express was a “local tabloid”. However, from its About Us page, East Bay Express appears to be just a local newspaper — in business since 1978 and devoted to “in-depth local reporting, arts and dining coverage.”

What would make Yelp representatives describe the paper as such? Probably the article titled, “Yelp and the Business of Extortion 2.0“, published on February 18, 2009, which detailed numerous claims from local Oakland business owners saying the same thing about Yelp manipulating reviews.


The reporter provided specific cases where positive reviews disappeared — or negative ones appeared — after owners declined to advertise.

Most impressive was the fact that the East Bay Express reporter got an interview with a former Yelp contract employee who told the paper that sales reps at Yelp admitted to the practice of promising to get reviews moved just to get an advertising sale.

An Interview With Yelp

To get Yelp’s perspective on this, we contacted Yelp PR Manager Kristen Whisenand, who connected us with Darnell Holloway, the head of Yelp’s business outreach.

Ryan: So I use Yelp as a reviewer and I’ve noticed that reviews often get pushed off into this “Not Recommended” section where they don’t count. I know the rating algorithm is kept secret, but you can probably understand how some people start to believe there’s some manipulation going on?

Darnell Holloway, Head of Business Outreach at Yelp
Darnell Holloway, Head of Business Outreach at Yelp

Darnell: We’ve actually always been very transparent with how the reviews are handled. As a consumer, you want the experience that you read about online in the reviews to be in line with what you experience when you go into that business.  So, what we realized is that there needs to be a system in place to make sure we’re displaying the most useful and reliable reviews for an audience of consumers.

Way back when we had our first initial launch on Yelp, it wasn’t long after that that we saw our first obviously fake review pop up on Yelp. That wasn’t something that was a Yelp-specific problem, that was something that was a problem across the Internet in general. That’s because, the mentality with a lot of business owners out there is, “Hey, I need to get as many reviews as I can, so I’m going to do anything possible to boost my ratings.”

Sometimes that unfortunately plays itself out where sometimes you have businesses reviewing themselves or giving their competitors negative reviews, or even buying fake reviews 3 Ways to Find Out If an Online Business Is Legitimate 3 Ways to Find Out If an Online Business Is Legitimate The major players in online retailing are well known. Amazon, Overstock, Newegg and others sell to millions of people, and are regarded as trustworthy. After all, we all use them. But while these large online... Read More . Or even getting all of their friends and family to leave them five-star ratings.

Ryan: Some businesses were actually attacking each other?

Darnell: Yes, still to this day. Again, that’s not something that just happens on Yelp. That’s something that happens on the Internet in general. So, we decided that we wanted to have a platform that was actually useful for consumers. So, that’s where this recommendation software comes into play.

How it works is that it’s a computer algorithm and it analyzes every single review that gets written based on quality, reliability, and each user’s activity on Yelp. So it can actually see a lot of back-end data about what each person who’s writing reviews does on the site and what their habits are.

There are three reasons why reviews would not be recommended. One is that the reviews are obviously fake, but also reviews that indicate some sort of bias. For example, if we see multiple accounts writing reviews for the same business coming from the same IP address, those types of reviews are not going to be recommended.

Ryan: So if multiple reviews to one business come from the same IP address, they automatically won’t be recommended?


Darnell: Right. So, for example, I know a guy who owned a car dealership and he said, “You know what, I think your recommendation software is broken, because all of my recent five-star reviews are not being recommended.” Well, we found out,  he had set up a laptop on the showroom floor, the same computer that he uses to log into his business owner’s account, he was having people sit down, create a Yelp profile, and leave him a five-star review.

Ryan: So, basically you try to incorporate a bunch of programmable “sensors” to identify this kind of behavior?

Darnell: Our recommendation software looks at dozens of signals on the back end. Beyond the IP address data, we don’t really go into much detail for obvious reasons.  But, there are three things we look at. The recommendation software is not likely to recommend fake or biased reviews, and also what we call unhelpful rant or raves.

If somebody posts a single negative rant or positive rave and doesn’t really engage with the site beyond that, we call those folks drive-by reviewers. That’s not necessarily the most useful review content for our audience of consumers. And finally, reviews that come from people that we just don’t have a lot of information about.

You have to create a profile before you create a review, and we encourage our Yelp users to leave information about themselves. If people choose not to really build up their profile or become active members of the Yelp community, then we’re not confident enough to recommend the reviews that they post on the site.

Ryan: Do you think it’s possible that some of these algorithms you’ve come up with to identify these behaviors could potentially be getting rid of legitimate reviews?

Kristen Whisenand, Senior PR Manager at Yelp
Kristen Whisenand, Senior PR Manager at Yelp

Kristen: Well, that’s the number one point. Some of these reviews are perfectly legitimate, they just might not be the most useful or helpful reviews out there. I saw that you had one of your reviews filtered on one that you wrote, where it was not recommended. I have no doubt that you were actually a customer at this business.

Ryan: That’s actually a really good point. I work in IT. When that happened to me, I was surprised. I was a legitimate customer. I posted a negative review. It was the first time that I had used Yelp, and I noticed that the review disappeared.

It wasn’t until I realized that I only had one star, and that this was my first post, that I realized it must have been some program or algorithm. But you must realize that to someone out there without that kind of IT background, it just seems like manipulation.

Darnell: Ryan, to be clear though, our recommendation software is constantly evaluating the information that it has available to it. So, if that was the reason that your review was not recommended, because you were just a user that we didn’t know a lot about, over time if you do become a more active member of the Yelp community, then there is the possibility that the system will add your review to the Recommended Review section for that business.

Ryan: Yes, I understand that, and that’s exactly what happened. But what I’m saying is that it’s very easy for people to misunderstand that system. How do you overcome the social perception that you’re manipulating reviews?

Darnell: Well, here’s the whole point. We’ve got two audiences on Yelp. We’ve got the consumers, and we’ve got the business owners. It may be confusing for some business owners, primarily because a lot of business owners want to have a perfect five-star rating.

As I mentioned, we’ve seen people go to great lengths to try to boost their ratings through inorganic means. While it may be frustrating for some of those folks, on the other side of the coin, consumers continue to find Yelp useful.

If you take a look at our numbers, we’ve got 132 million people now coming to the site every month to look up information on local businesses. So, our goal really is to make sure that the consumer experience is great. When people are reading content on Yelp, we want them to have an experience in the offline world that’s in line with what’s written on the site. And we are doing that.

Kristen: One more important note is that Darnell and his colleagues go around and educate more and more business owners. On the PR front, we’re continuing to educate consumers through working with websites like you and doing blog posts. There certainly is a lot of education and transparency that needs to continue.

When you say, “Can’t you see how consumers might be confused by this?” — The alternative is, if we were to show consumers every single review that is on the site, consumers would then be misled by these reviews and information, because we would be overrun with fake reviews, and businesses trying to artificially inflate their reviews, or businesses bashing competitors. That content would no longer be useful to consumers.

Sales and Advertising Manipulating Reviews?

Ryan: That is a good point, but the other side of the coin that confuses me is all of these stories are from 2009 and 2010. Was there something going on in the Sales Department at Yelp around that time where possibly sales folks were making promises of review manipulation, even though the company was denying it?


Darnell: That’s absolutely not true. A story came out in 2009 by kind of a local tabloid called the East Bay Express, where they made this sort of sensational headline called “Yelp and the Business of Extortion 2.0”, and they told this story about a business making these claims, and that’s what sparked all of these other people to come out.

I think one of the reasons why the confusion popped up at that time is because Yelp was still relatively new, and the whole concept of a review site that doesn’t display 100% of its reviews I think was still a bit of a foreign concept. Because of this, people had this misconception that the story in the East Bay Express must be true, and that’s why these reviews are not being displayed. It became this whole Internet meme that has been debunked repeatedly since then.

Ryan: Debunked? There are a number of advertisers that were named. They quoted a former Yelp contract employee making these claims. Even the businesses themselves were named in the article. Are you saying all those people were lying?

Darnell: Here’s the thing. Claims that have been made in court have been thrown out repeatedly because they lack evidence. Harvard Business School did an independent study who decided on their own, after looking at our recommendation software, that there was no difference between advertisers and non-advertisers as far as the way the software acted on our site. And then finally, anybody can do a search for themselves and look up advertisers on Yelp that have negative reviews. That begs the question, if these advertisers had a magic button to zap all of their negative reviews, why aren’t they using it? The answer is because it doesn’t exist.

**Author’s Note: The Harvard study was actually to determine how much review fraud by businesses was going on at Yelp. The section about advertising was not at all the focus of the study. In fact, the researchers noted in the report:

“Third, our test obviously possesses no power whatsoever in detecting discrimination unrelated to altering decisions. Therefore, while our analysis provides some suggestive evidence against the theory that Yelp favors advertisers, we stress that it is neither exhaustive, nor conclusive. It is beyond the scope of this paper, and outside the capacity of our dataset to evaluate all the ways in which Yelp could favor advertisers.”

Darnell:  To your other point about the salespeople. If anybody on our sales staff were ever making those claims, that person would be fired. Second of all, our sales team have no control at all over review content on our site, and we do that on purpose because we want to avoid any conflicts of interest. If somebody is buying advertising on our site, all they’re getting are search ads and paid upgrades on their pages, like a video player and a photo slideshow.

Ryan: Were sales folks ever doing this kind of activity on Yelp?

Jeremy Stoppelman - CEO of Yelp
Jeremy Stoppelman – CEO of Yelp

Darnell:  No. There has never been any evidence to suggest that this happened. Now, one of the things our CEO said when he did a Reddit AMA a few months ago was that, we’re a large company and we’ve got over 1,000 salespeople calling businesses.

Is it possible that a rogue salesperson could have said something like that potentially? Maybe. But if they did, and if they were ever caught, they would have been fired, and there would have been no way for them to make good on that promise. But, there has been no evidence to suggest that actually occurred.  What we extrapolate from this whole situation is that the one article led to a lot of confusion about the process by which we recommend and don’t recommend reviews. Then this sort of Woozle Effect Internet meme happened.

Kristen: I think what can even happen is that a business isn’t even aware that they have a Yelp listing until they receive that call from the sales person. So, they decline to advertise. They think to themselves, “I don’t need to pay for this. I’m just going to ask my mom, my cousin, my friends, to post positive reviews.” Then all of a sudden they realize that all of this hard effort they’ve put into soliciting these reviews or perhaps writing them for themselves – all of them are “disappearing”. Then, they make the correlation that all of this happened because they declined advertising.

Internal Policies and Conflicts of Interest

Ryan: Do you have any internal policies for your employees as far as conflict of interest with doing their own personal reviews outside of their work for Yelp?

Darnell: Absolutely. No one on our sales staff is allowed to write reviews for any business on Yelp. That is a hardline policy. Beyond that, we go through great lengths in terms of quality control to make sure that our sales staff is trained to be respectful of business owners first and foremost, and also to make sure they’re selling things that they can deliver on, which again is search ads and paid upgrades on their business page.

Kristen: We also note that in the contract that all business owners sign when they sign up for advertising, that there’s no connection between advertising and content on Yelp. You should also note on all business listings that it says, “Your trust is our top concern, so businesses can’t pay to alter or remove their reviews.” So, we want to be very transparent that there is no connection here between paying for advertising and receiving online reviews Do You Value Online Reviews? [We Ask You] Do You Value Online Reviews? [We Ask You] Have you ever written an online review? If so, what persuaded you to take the time to post it online for others to read? Read More .


Ryan: Aren’t businesses also allowed to have one sponsored review that they can choose to be listed at the top on their page?

Darnell: Yes, that was a feature that we retired in 2010. It was called the “Favorite Review”, and what that meant is that they were allowed to select one of their reviews that they thought was their best and have it highlighted at the top of their page. That didn’t impact their overall rating, and it didn’t impact the way that any of the other reviews were ordered. But, we found that it wasn’t one of the most useful advertising tools, and I think it’s also part of where a lot of that confusion came from when it comes to this meme about manipulation of reviews.

Ryan: So the retirement of that feature was tied directly to the bad publicity that was going on starting in 2009?

Darnell: Yeah, we retired it after that story came out. We felt that might have been part of where that confusion was coming from.

Yelp representatives were very frank and forthcoming in this dicussion, and for good reason. These conspiracy theories have been a thorn in the company’s side for years. In fact, they’ve even published a page dedicated to proving that “Money doesn’t buy anything but ads”.


The Truth? An Interview with Square Cow Moovers

From the other end of this debate, there are the claims and evidence (witness statements) from non-advertisers saying that they were not only told by sales staff that Yelp would manipulate reviews, but that after declining advertising, positive views actually were manipulated.

There are very clear statements from Yelp representatives now vehemently denying such things, saying that this is a misunderstanding on the part of business owners, who do not fully understand what the recommendation software is doing. To close the loop, we decided to talk to two businesses who are actively advertising on Yelp.

The first advertiser was Wade Lombard, the owner of Square Cow Moovers of Austin, Texas.

Ryan: How long has your business had a presence on Yelp?

Wade: 5 years (approx.)

Ryan: How long were you on Yelp before you decided to invest in advertising?

Wade: 1.5 years (approx)

Ryan: Once you purchased advertising with Yelp, did you immediately notice an increase or decrease in your Yelp rating?

Wade: Yes and no. Yes, because it did seem to pick up a little. However, it wasn’t an overnight success. For a while, we felt as if Yelp was paying for itself, but not doing a great deal more. After about 6 months, we hit a tipping point and it seemed as if we were getting call after call from those finding us on Yelp. Well, once we served those people, they went back and “Yelped” us. Then more people read about us on Yelp, they used us, and Yelped us. On and on it went.

Ryan: Over time after advertising with Yelp, did you eventually see an increase or decrease in your Yelp rating?

Wade: Our first Yelp review You Can Finally Publish Yelp Reviews From Android Devices You Can Finally Publish Yelp Reviews From Android Devices Yelp has finally updated their Android app to allow users to post reviews. Previously, users could only post tips or draft reviews on their mobile devices. Read More was one star. It was awful. It terrified us. We immediately knew that we needed to focus on online consumer reviews. Once we focused heavily on that aspect of our business, the reviews started stacking up, mostly good but some not so good. We believe it was a focus on providing a high level of service and execution that resulted in positive ratings.

Ryan: What do you get in return for your investment in Yelp advertising?

Wade: The phone to ring. That’s what all business should want from a marketing investment. It doesn’t matter how cool the design is or how flashy or new the idea might be. It must “move the needle”, which translates to increased quality leads.

Ryan: Some non-advertisers claim that Yelp manipulates the ratings of businesses that choose not to advertise. Are you aware of this claim, and do you know any colleagues or other businesses who claim the same thing?

Wade: You would have to live in a cave to have not heard these rumors. I’ve given it a lot of thought and consideration over the past few years. In the end, I 100% disagree with this theory. The companies that really focus on providing a unique experience with amazing service, coupled with precise execution, always seem to do well on Yelp.

On Yelp, With Lockbusters

Our next interview was with Jay Sofer, the Owner of Lockbusters of New York.

Ryan: How long has your business had a presence on Yelp?

Jay: A little over five years now.

Ryan: How long were you on Yelp before you decided to invest in advertising?

Jay: Within six months of being active on Yelp.

Ryan: Once you purchased advertising with Yelp, did you immediately notice an increase or decrease in your Yelp rating?

Jay: I immediately noticed an increase in business, reviews, and ratings. Advertising put me in front of many more Yelpers, and potential reviewers. I was already generating good reviews with my limited exposure. Advertising moved my company out of a small localized area and into three boroughs of New York City.

Ryan: Over time after advertising with Yelp, did you eventually see an increase or decrease in your Yelp rating?

Jay: It has been a consistent increase in rating and reviews. I have maintained a five star rating now for several years. That has largely to do with how many Yelpers I am in front of, and how they share their positive experience.

Ryan: What do you get in return for your investment in Yelp advertising?

Jay: Currently I am enrolled in the highest advertising package. 90% of my customers (new leads) come through Yelp. My company’s gross revenue is half a million a year.

Ryan: Some non-advertisers claim that Yelp manipulates the ratings of businesses that choose not to advertise. Are you aware of this claim, and do you know any colleagues or other businesses who claim the same thing?

Jay: I’ve heard of many interesting legends circulating out there in the business world. I find the majority of them to be ridiculous. In my opinion, business owners tend to deflect as much blame as they possibly can for their poor business practice.

Yelp has little to do with how they are received. Customer service & interaction with Yelpers means everything. However, I do completely understand the reaction to the “review based market” being quite a shock to business owners who experienced success prior to its inception. I don’t think they realize just how much responsibility they need to take now for their own business practice, especially in regards to customer service. The game has changed, so evolve or die.

What Do You Think?

Non-advertisers say the review manipulation game is unfair on Yelp. Yelp claims that there is no game to begin with. Finally Yelp advertisers say that even though they’ve experienced more and better reviews since advertising, it’s because of greater exposure on the Yelp website, and due to a better focus on business practices 6 Free Social Media Guides All Business Owners Should Read 6 Free Social Media Guides All Business Owners Should Read If you run a business and want to take your social-media efforts to the next level, you want to download and read these free guides. Read More and customer service.

What do you think? Which case is the most compelling? Is the Yelp advertising manipulation conspiracy theory just that — a conspiracy? Or could there be some truth to it? Just like with the secret search algorithm at Google, or the Colonel’s secret recipe at KFC, the answers are tucked away behind closed doors. So, we may never really know for certain.

Image Credit: Friendly Callcenter via Juniart at Shutterstock, Image via Kristen Whisenand Linkedin Profile, Image via Darnell Holloway LinkedIn Profile, Image via Jeremy Stoppelman LinkedIn Profile, Pavel L Photo and Video /, Jay Sofer image courtesy of Lockbusters

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *