Checking 'Yelp.com' For Elves
- Please send as far and wide as possible.
Editor, The Konformist
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Checking 'Yelp.com' For Elves (aka: Why you don't name yourself negatively [again])
This story is starting to build in the national press.
The (now) aptly named Yelp.com (I'm not providing a link there because I think it should probably be avoided) has really done a number on their customers. Not only those who use the site to make business decisions, but, incredibly, the very businesses themselves.
In what can only be described as Mafia-style tactics, or maybe US Gov't.-style, it is looking strongly like Yelp has taken to extorting cash from small business owners all over the country. The stories are pouring in from everywhere.
Here is a good place to read about this - because it is a personal story from my good friend Scott Rose, the best Mac man and Filemaker - um... maker - on the Coast.
This is a firsthand account of someone who took the time to provide Yelp some of the reviews that give that site its value. Frankly, I've cautioned Scott not to bother doing this in the past. I'm not strident about it, but I feel that there's a lot of internet business that depends on lots of free content provided by users. I think this has value, and people, maybe, shouldn't just give it away. If you didn't give it away then maybe they'd have to monetize your contribution somehow.
But that is for another post. Let's suffice to say that one such provider of free content suddenly found himself, and his free work for this company, abused.
He provided negative and positive reviews. And let's face it, sometimes we are more passionate about the negative reviews. Respectfully so, of course, but still, if you are left standing in your living room waiting for a taxi that never comes, you might get the notion that other people should think twice before signing up to get the same treatment.
As Scott writes, they "never showed up to pick me up from my apartment, even though I waited 60 extra minutes past the arrival time for them to come, and after calling the taxicab company 5 times to check on where they were ('Just 5 more minutes, Mr. Rose')."
The posts Scott wrote were all respectful and violated no terms of Yelp's. Evidence of that is that they remained on the site for a full 2 months.
Soon after that time, Scott went back to check one of them and found it gone. The rest of the negative reviews, also gone (Scott adds that the reviews were still available for him to see, and him only - just not for the public). Scott asked around to friends who provided the site with free content, and found that everyone had a similar experience.
The kicker is that Scott talked to another friend who had just heard an incredible story, coincidentally about this same Yelp. Scott's friend had just talked to another friend who owns his own business. This third person had been offered a 'deal he couldn't refuse'. Basically, pay up, and we can make it so none a 'dis eva happens ta you, my frien'. The pitch was delivered, straight up, as "Hi! Want to buy some advertising with Yelp.com? For just $299 we can advertise your business, and move or remove negative ads. You won't see a negative ad about yourself when you are an advertiser with us."
Think of it: make a website that specializes in making trouble for small businesses by publishing every scathing thought the public has. Then show up one night in a black suit with a rose in your lapel and say "Come 'ere. You know, you gots a lotta problems, my frien'. Fur a smallish fee, I could offer yuz some (cough), proTECtion from dese here unfair reviews." In other words: create the problem, then innocently offer to protect the victim from the problem. That you created.
Well, I was a little skeptical. This is a good, trusted friend, now, so it made me straighten up in my chair and listen; but in fairness, it's just one person. And the other story he tells is 3rd hand, which is officially, according to law, when things get hazy and iffy. But then:
Now, this is an avalanche. For the most part I did NOT include stories that simply reported the same article - some of these may reference the same articles but also include personal data either by the author of an article, or the extensive comments sections.
Even more shockingly, this didn't just relate to negative ads. In some cases lots of businesses were dismayed to find that a good review, or 3, or 4, would spontaneously disappear from the site. And often, business owners say, they had either received a call from Yelp's Ad Sales dept. shortly before, and refused the service, or received a call shortly after finding the reviews manipulated.
"I, eh, notice dat yous got some problems recently pertaining to de disaPPEARance of dese, eh, good reviews yous had. Fur a smallish fee dat could be... corRECTed. If yuz know whaddi mean."
The issue of 'moving' reviews becomes as important as removal because these sites (which isn't often discussed, although I noticed one discussion, started by an ordinary user - I believe on Yelp's own site) use what are called "Meta Reviews". In other words, they can't equally showcase every review of course - so a choice has to be made as to which review will be showcased -whether in a special box, or often just by being first. Most review sites default to "most recent post" as the Meta post. Others use different standards. According to users and businesses, Yelp used whatever standard would force the business to 'Yelp' and pay up.
There's a LOT of personal, anecdotal data on this story.
Now, if Yelp is going to do business using the public's word against business', then Yelp should be held to roughly the same standard.
And, rising to the true test of hilarity, the CEO of the company, whose name I don't feel like printing but you can find easily on the links above, recently defended himself on his blog.
It is reported that users, pro and con, were stymied and shocked that they couldn't leave comments in reply to his statement.
Much like the Mafia, and the US Gov't., Yelp seems to run on the standard of one set of rules: all the ones that benefit Yelp and are to the detriment of their partners. And by partners I mean, all the customers: the businesses, and ordinary users of the site who all in one way or another provide the mountain of free content that enriches Yelp and their wildly inconsistent and 'clueless' CEO.
(I provide single quotes for the word 'clueless' because in my study of the US Gov't I have found that the cover of 'cluelessness' is the first hiding place to which the criminal element will run, when asked to justify themselves.)
Some of the stories reporting this are characterizing this as "just a rumor". And yes, when looked at from one, or two stories, or even five, individually and in a vacuum, you could easily dismiss this as 'just people talking'. But when you look at the mountain of first-hand testimony appearing around the country - not just San Fran, not just Chicago, but from nearly everywhere that Yelp operates - you have to say we are quite firmly in a land beyond rumor.
By now, there's a good chance that someone you know has a similar personal Yelp story of their own. I know that's why I got interested. I don't use sites like Yelp very much usually, because, contrary to the common group-think, I think that criticism is a skill that has to be worked at, and that not just anyone can do. I don't know that it is all that important a skill, I think it is, but if you are doing it, you should take it seriously and it should be important to develop the right skill set.
And a lot of user reviews are long stories about everything a person did that day, and all the feelings they had, and all the troubles in their lives, and why they aren't dumb like everyone else, but still keep getting undone by all the other dumb people... and then often end with the user expressing confidence that once they actually use the product, they are sure all the above mentioned problems will go away. I've wasted precious minutes reading reviews of equipment that ended up having no value, where the user just wanted to express enthusiasm for the product and couldn't wait until UPS finally delivered it.
There's a lot more documentation out there that something is really wrong, that something like extortion might be going on. But having a trusted friend tell me one day, apropos of nothing, that some site that purported to be a fair and real review site by and for fair and real people was in fact dicking him around and being weird with his free content was really the one that woke me up. My friend isn't going to join any class action lawsuits, has no issue with reviews on the site regarding the business he owns, and really believes in the potential for democracy and truth in this model. I don't really, but I respect that he does, and that he takes it seriously enough to get angry about it and take action.
Anyway, there are a few other links I found interesting regarding Yelp, below.
A separate, but no less interesting scam involving Yelp, and, my favorite subject in all this, the gathering of more free content:
And, due to sheer hilarity, East Bay Express has taken this matter to heart and some of that is deserving of its own special section. I included links to some of their fine reporting on the issue above, these are just a little extra.
An important discussion on another of my favorite subjects: the public, mad with Yelp power, acting like dicks (usually I like to discuss this in regards to their behavior as investors, but this is equally illuminating) and trying to intimidate businesses. In this case, it's not just businesses 'Yelping', it's the employees of said businesses too.
Is this some huge retribution against an innocent company trying to empower the average person? I just don't think so. I can't find similar outrage over services like Zagat, for example.
However, the company known as "CitySearch" has elicited some outrage - not similar in scope or abuse or sheer flammability - regarding 'click fraud'. Clicking the mouse has turned into a really inane and insane vehicle for monetization, and there is a mountain of complaint alleging CitySearch is either practicing, or encouraging, fraud in order to enrich themselves. There also seem to be a small number of complaints and allegations that CitySearch might engage in the same 'pay for play' - at least in regard to showing good reviews - of which Yelp finds itself accused. But the difference in sheer number and weight of the complaints is getting staggering.
I want to wrap this up with a warning I've mentioned before: when you set out to name yourself, try not to use one that will oviously bite you back in the ass later, especially one that has a negative lean to it. You can't protect yourself in advance, in perpetuity, from all goofing on your name - but, maybe try not to use a negative word or phrase that can be used against you.
There's a growing army of people out there claiming that cyber-goons roughed them up and caused them to "Yelp" for Help.