Can Online Reviews Be Trusted?

March 16, 2009 02:18 PM
by Cara McDonough
The Web site Yelp is denying allegations that it manipulates reviews according to whether a business advertises with or provides services for them.

Claims of Rearranged Reviews

Patty Rothman, owner of Chicago business More Cupcakes, says that last fall a Yelp staffer came to her store, guaranteeing good reviews if they offered to cater one of Yelp’s parties for free.

She said she complied, reluctantly, and “positive reviews bloomed for the business right after the party,” reports the Chicago Tribune.

Other Chicago businesses reported similar experiences. Ina Pinkney of Ina's restaurant said that a Yelp salesperson offered to “move up” her good reviews if she sponsored one of their events.

But Yelp, a Web site that allows users to post reviews of restaurants and other businesses, adamantly denies the claims.
In an official post on the Yelp blog, CEO Jeremy Stoppelman said that the company ensures against site manipulation by having salespeople sit on a different floor than those who can rework the site.

The accusations from Chicago-based businesses follow similar allegations out of the San Francisco Bay Area. In February, the East Bay Express wrote about John (last name excluded), an East Bay restaurateur who received calls almost daily from sales reps at Yelp.

He said he recalled the rep addressing the issue of several bad reviews about his restaurant. "We can move them,” the sales rep said. “Well, for $299 a month."

Several other business owners shared their stories. According to the article, in six instances, positive reviews disappeared, or negative reviews appeared, after owners refused to advertise with Yelp.

Beyond the issue of site manipulation, business owners say citizen review sites, like Yelp, can provide “mixed blessings” reports the Tribune. The sites can be sources of praise, but also of “vicious attacks.”

Still, other merchants say Yelp is useful. Chicago-based restaurant marketer Cindy Kurman calls Yelp a “great marketing tool.” She says many merchants believe that if you do advertise you have greater opportunity for more favorable reviews, but that “the whole thing should be clear to the consumer and Yelp shouldn't take a holier-than-thou attitude about it."

Online review site Citysearch gives greater prominence to businesses that advertise, but the company fully discloses that it does so on its advertising information page.

When a user searches Citysearch, the advertising businesses are listed at the top of the page in a box that says “sponsored results.”

----------- Advertisement -----------

Qwidget is loading...

Related Topic: Internet comments cause lawsuit

In February, Internet comments on pharmaceutical Web site CafePharma ignited a lawsuit.

Investors filed a securities fraud lawsuit against companies Schering-Plough Corp. and Merck & Co., which together produce the cholesterol drug Vytorin. Citing negative comments that appeared on CafePharma, the lawsuit claimed that the companies did not disclose test results showing that Vytorin doesn’t unclog arteries any better than an older, less expensive drug.

The case has added fuel to the debate about the Internet’s role in the courtroom, including another case involving Yelp.

San Francisco resident Christopher Norberg is currently facing a defamation lawsuit after posting a negative review of a chiropractic business on Yelp. In the review, Norberg claimed that the doctor he saw, Steven Biegel, was dishonest following a bill dispute.

Eric Nordskog, attorney for Biegel, said his client does not oppose people expressing opinions online, but “there is a line where if someone … publishes a false statement of fact as opposed to an opinion, then that person can and should be held responsible for their words.”

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines