The Politics of Food

Houston-Area Restaurateurs Struggle With Yelp's Business Practices [UPDATED]

Yelp proved a long time ago to be a successful outlet for consumers to speak their minds about restaurants and other kinds of businesses. However, the consumer reviews displayed on a Yelp page are sometimes skewed by the “Yelp Sort” algorithm. Even basic facts, such as whether a business is open or closed, aren’t necessarily correct.

If a business is marked as “closed” when it is not, potential customers who see that status on Yelp likely won’t visit. If enough people believe a restaurant is closed, that can do serious harm both financially and to the place's reputation. 

John Virden is accusing Yelp of marking Myth Kafe’s location at the Conservatory (a food hall at 1010 Prairie that houses four other restaurants) as closed in response to an unpaid advertising invoice. Virden claims a Yelp sales representative told him that marking a business as closed when there were outstanding invoices was a standard practice. (Virden says by this past May, checks had been mailed to Yelp’s collection agency for all outstanding invoices but that one of them was never cashed.)

We received a statement from Yelp's public relations representative, Katrina Hafford, that said: “We want to make it clear that the business page closing had nothing to do with a missed payment. Instead, it was based on a user’s report, and we did not catch the error due to the presence of multiple businesses with different names at the same address. We’ve been in touch with the business owner and have corrected the issue.”

The fact that businesses are marked as closed exclusively based on a Yelp user’s say-so is a problem. Yelp does not necessarily contact restaurant owners to verify that their businesses are closed. Hafford wrote, “Yelp receives thousands of closure requests every day from its users, which limits our ability to confirm closures with business owners. Depending on how confident we are in the suggestions, we may or may not confirm the closure with the business.” 

Updated, 8/31/2016, 1:23 p.m. Hafford emailed to say marking businesses as closed isn't just based on user reports and that there's a "verification process." We asked what that entails since it doesn't necessarily involve contacting the restaurant owner. Hafford wrote back and said, "Some of the steps we take include evaluating content on the site (such as reviews, photos, tips) and conducting research of publicly available records. If there is not enough information to conclude that the business is closed, we may contact the business owner."

Virden says he never received a phone call or email from any Yelp representative to ask about the status of his restaurant.

That’s only one issue that restaurant owners are having with Yelp. Scott Moore Jr. of Tejas Chocolate Craftory is tired of the aggressive sales techniques, used not only by Yelp business services (which lets owners administer their own restaurant page, among other things) but also by Eat24, Yelp’s food delivery service.

Moore says that despite repeated attempts to explain why he doesn’t want to use either Yelp or Eat24, salespeople just keep calling. Furthermore, he claims that when he declines, positive consumer reviews are moved to “not recommended” on the Yelp website. “[The Eat24] model cannot possibly work for our establishment. Am I going to take an Internet order that cuts in line right in front of the people waiting inside our joint? We can't possibly manage that. The sales guy couldn't wrap his brain around that reality for us. I am sure it works for several types of places, but we said no. Four 5-star reviews are suddenly buried hidden from users.”

Those “buried” reviews are subtly hidden at the bottom of restaurant Yelp pages and labeled “not currently recommended.” We took a look at the page for Tejas Chocolate Craftory and found six four- and five-star reviews that were hidden. Furthermore, a note above all those good reviews reads, “The reviews below are not factored into the business's overall star rating.” That means Tejas is essentially not getting credit for six good reviews in its overall star rating (which is currently still a very good four and a half out of five stars).

The most visible review at the top of the page was from July 20, but the most recent review was actually a five-star one from just a few days ago: August 27. That’s because consumers who visit Yelp pages to get an idea as to the quality of the restaurant have to purposefully sort by “most recent” in order to read consumer comments listed in chronological order. Otherwise, what they’ll first see is the “Yelp Sort.”

A copy of Yelp’s advertising contract that we received gives some insight into what the “Yelp Sort” is. A section of the contract states, “The Site employs automated software in an effort to showcase the most reliable and useful reviews while displaying other reviews less prominently. Client understands that while Yelp uses such automated software to identify potentially less helpful reviews, the software may sometimes suppress legitimate reviews or fail to detect illegitimate reviews”

The reviews deemed “reliable” and “useful” that show up at the top are often from users deemed part of the “Yelp Elite Squad," a group of consumers who are very active on the site. According to the Yelp website, consumers are selected for the Elite Squad based on “well-written reviews, high-quality tips, a detailed personal profile, an active voting and complimenting record, and a history of playing well with others.” Anyone can nominate himself or herself, and Elite Yelpers are rewarded for their prolific tips and reviews with special parties at restaurants and bars with free food, drinks and entertainment.

None of this means that Elite Yelpers are more knowledgeable about food or drink than anyone else who contributes comments. One-off reviews are often hidden in the “not recommended” section. Under Yelp’s system, an Elite review that’s months old and may not reflect the restaurant’s current performance is often the top comment.

Gary Wise owns catering company Simpleton’s, and says, "All my reviews are five stars, but [Yelp's] 'algorithm' hides three of them because the customer only did one review. They were from legit clients who joined [Yelp] just to give me a good review."

Nichole Buckman of CorkScrew BBQ related a similar experience. “Yelp is a scam to business owners. People have no idea how much businesses loathe them. [Yelp salespeople] used to call us once a week. We'd tell them ‘no thank you’ on advertising and all of a sudden three 5-star ratings would be gone, then three more every time we said ‘no.’”

Yelp might be used ubiquitously, but it is, at best, seriously flawed. At worst, it’s a tool used by aggressive sales reps to bully restaurant owners into buying advertising.

As the saying goes, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Yelp needs to be more responsible to restaurant owners and consumers alike and present real reviews in the order received, not a manipulated version of it that’s been warped by algorithms, sales tactics and egos. Until the system is fixed, restaurant owners will continue to correlate disappearing and hidden good reviews with their refusal to give Yelp money.

Updated, 8/31/2016, 1:37 p.m.: Yelp Responds

Yelp's public relations representative, Katrina Hafford, emailed us again after the story ran with a statement that denies allegations by restaurant owners that positive reviews are moved to "not currently recommended" after they decline sales pitches. 

There has never been any amount of money a business can pay Yelp to manipulate reviews and there is no relationship between reviews and anything to do with Yelp ads. 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.

Our recommendation software treats advertisers and non-advertisers exactly the same. You’ll find plenty of Yelp advertisers with negative reviews, and plenty of non-advertisers with five-star ratings across the board. Furthermore, there is zero relationship between the timing of when a review gets recommended and when a business decides to – or declines to – advertise: reviews can be recommended or not recommended days, weeks, or even months after they were first posted, and Yelp sales representatives don’t have any influence over when that might happen.

In short, there is no relationship between reviews and anything having to do with Yelp Ads or the Yelp Ads sales process. Period.

The trick is convincing restaurant owners of that. 
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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook