PEMBROKE PARK, Fla. – Business owners claim Yelp manipulated their ratings as punishment for not advertising. and Local 10 News investigative reporter Christina Vazquez has learned that there's been a history of such allegations which company officials have fiercely denied.
Now a new documentary takes aim at the online review company, accusing it of unethical business practices.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, there have been more than 4,000 complaints filed with the FTC about Yelp since 2011.
In a letter Assistant General Counsel Dione J. Stearns added, "You should know that the complaints have not necessarily been verified by the FTC. Therefore, you should make your own judgment about relying on the information provided."
HISTORY OF COMPLAINTS:
For years Yelp has been dogged by claims from business owners who say their Yelp ratings suffer when they refuse to pay for Yelp advertising.
"When we first opened we had somebody from Yelp come over and ask if we wanted to do advertising," Vera Kosarev, co-owner of Fred Astaire Dance Studios, in Coral Gables said.
She filed a complaint with the Florida Attorney General's Office, asking for help after she says Yelp began to "filter" her reviews.
"At one point, we only had negative reviews," Kosarev said. "And we had 20 reviews that were positive that were not there all."
The reviews she is referring to have been filtered by Yelp into a subcategory of reviews the company deems as not currently recommended, Kosarev said.
To find them you must scroll down the recommended reviews until you see a subtle line in light grey text that says: "26 other reviews that are not currently recommended."
After you click there, you will spot a Yelp video where the company explains that they use "automated software to recommend the reviews we think will be the most helpful" and "advertisers get no special treatment."
Kosarev said some of those reviews come from her students, and while they can be viewed on a separate page, because they are in that subcategory they don't count toward her overall rating.
Yelp said there are several reasons why a review might not be recommended to include so-called biased reviews, which the company describes as reviews solicited by a business owner from friends, family members or favorite customers.
"I don't want the bad reviews removed and we don't want our student reviews to be removed. We are looking for both to show up," Kosarev said.
In 2012, a Miami Beach business owner told the Florida Attorney General's Office, "they have tried to extort money."
Also in 2012, a Cooper City business owner claimed in a complaint filed with the Florida Attorney General's Office, "Yelp has been filtering only my good reviews."
Last year, in a complaint filed with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, a Plantation business owner accused Yelp of "shady business practices" and told state regulators that a member of "Yelp's elite wrote a fictitious review."
"You can't remove yourself from their account," Kosarev said. "I just don't know how the government is allowing this to happen."
While business owners nationwide have lodged similar complaints with regulators, according to a 2015 Yelp blog post, the Federal Trade Commission closed an investigation of Yelp without taking action.
The FTC would not comment on that investigation or this story.
In another Yelp blog post published this month headlined, "Yelp extortion conspiracy theory debunked…again," Vince Sollitto, senior vice president of Global Corporate Communications and Government Relations at Yelp.com reiterates that the company's position that the claims are false and have been repeatedly dismissed by courts of law and academic studies.
"BILLION DOLLAR BULLY:"
"How can thousands of business owners be wrong?" Mellissa Wood said. "The FTC closes an investigation for many reasons. It doesn't necessary mean it is giving a business a clean bill of health. They received over 2,000 complaints against Yelp."
Wood is the associate producer of the upcoming documentary "Billion Dollar Bully," which explores claims of review manipulation and review fabrication.
"Every single business owner is telling the same story," Wood said via a Skype interview with Call Christina. "We continued to dig a little deeper and it exploded from there."
Currently in post-production, Yelp's stock took a hit last March as filmmakers sought funding on Kickstarter.
"I don't think that would have happened if there were not people already feeling that way," Wood said.
By September, a Financial Times article would state that Yelp is in need of a good review.
"I have spoken with countless business owners who have brought a lot of evidence to show. When I refused to advertise all my positive reviews were filtered and negative reviews on the top," Wood said.
In a statement about the upcoming film, Yelp tells Local 10 News, "There is no merit to the claims the film appears to highlight, which have been repeatedly dismissed by courts of law, investigated by government regulators, including the FTC, and disproven by academic study."
YELP'S STATEMENT IN FULL:
There has never been any amount of money a business can pay Yelp to manipulate reviews. Any claims that Yelp manipulates reviews for money or that advertisers are treated any differently than non-advertisers are completely false and have been repeatedly dismissed by courts of law, thoroughly researched and disproven by academic study, and investigated by government regulators, including the FTC, who closed a nearly two-year investigation without taking action.
Yelp has an automated recommendation software in place which is engineered to highlight the most useful and reliable content to consumers who visit the site. Our stance is quality over quantity and we currently recommend about 71% of the reviews that are submitted. This means about one in four reviews submitted to Yelp are not published on a business’ listing or recommended to consumers. There are several reasons a review might not be recommended. The recommendation software is engineered to weed out possible fakes (several reviews generated from the same IP address), biased reviews (written by a competitor, a disgruntled employee, or solicited by a business owner from friends, family members or favorite customers), and unhelpful rants or raves. The software can also weed out reviews written by less active users, which can be real reviews based on real experiences but we don't know enough about the user to recommend their opinion to our community. The reviews that are not currently recommended can still be viewed on a separate page but do not factor into a business' overall star rating.