Picture this: You're a business owner let's say you run a restaurant hounded by several negative reviews on a popular consumer website. You fear that your fledging reputation will be torpedoed. It seems like there's nothing you can do. Then, one day, you hear from the site: they'll take the reviews down, but it's going to cost you.
Those are, essentially, the seedy allegations contained in a class action filed against Yelp on Wednesday. Lead plaintiff Gregory Perrault, owner of Cats & Dogs Animal Hospital in Long Beach, says that a Yelp sales person told him that, for a monthly fee, he could have more control over his company's page and the negative reviews posted there.
The saga began last September, when Perrault asked Yelp to remove a negative review written by Chris R., a customer complaining about an experience in 2007 (Yelp's policy limits reviews to those detailing occurrences within the past year). Yelp complied, and Perrault subsequently asked the company to take down a vague and threatening review posted by a Kay R.
That's when the Yelp representative threw out the alleged offer. For $300 a month, I'd have more control over my site and move things around and change the tagline on Google, Perrault told ABC News. He declined the offer, but Yelp was persistent; Perrault says he began receiving calls from the company at least once a week. Worse, the company re-posted Chris R's review, this time with a different last initial. The complaint came and went, popping back up whenever Perrault ignored Yelp's calls.
Perrault filed suit out of concern that the calls and the shady complaints weren't going to stop. My fear is that unless I took this step and I don't sign up for their plan, I'm going to continue to get harassment, he said. It's like they're holding me over a barrel here if I don't sign up.
Yelp co-founder and CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, for his part, called the lawsuit without merit and said that the company will fight it vigorously. In a blog entry denouncing Perrault's charges, Stoppelman wrote that [t]he entire value of the Yelp community to consumers and businesses hinges upon that trust and we would never do anything to jeopardize it.
Stoppelman acknowledged that the site has long faced charges of monkeying around with reviews in exchange for money, but pointed out that such allegations ignore empirical evidence in favor of conspiracy theories.
Despite counter-examples to the contrary (virtually no advertiser on Yelp has a perfect reputation), extensive media explorations that end inconclusively, and the absence of any actual evidence to support this theory, this unfortunate and untrue meme has taken on a life of its own, Stoppelman continued.
Simply put, Yelp does not remove or hide negative reviews in exchange for money and Yelp salespeople do not offer to do so. Additionally, Yelp treats review content equally for advertisers and non-advertisers alike.
Is it possible that Perrault fabricated the charges out of whole cloth, in an attempt to get negative reviews of his company taken off a popular website? Absolutely not, says Jared Beck, the lawyer handling the case.
We've been directly contacted by dozens of people. And in every location you can think of. Literally across the country, said Beck, a member of the Miami firm Beck & Lee Business Trial Lawyers. What we learned is that this isn't an isolated practice or a single event or a single sales representative run amok. This seems to be a regular business practice.
Indeed, the complaint cites several other business owners who allege similar conduct by Yelp, including a San Mateo furniture store owner who says she accepted Yelp's offer to remove negative comments for a six-month period in return for $350. After the six months were up, according to the complaint, the negative reviews returned.
The suit seeks an injunction and unspecified damages.