2 Investigators: Businesses Yelping About Review-Driven Web Site

Send Your Tips To Pam Zekman

CHICAGO (CBS) — With millions of users, Yelp is one of the country’s most popular websites. More than 25 million reviews are posted on the website for all kinds of businesses and services.

But years of controversy over the company’s alleged sales techniques and requests for freebies have raised questions about the trustworthiness of its reviews.

The techniques have infuriated some small business owners in Chicago.

Ina Pinkney, who runs a popular West Loop restaurant, is one of them. She says she received a call from Yelp “out of the blue,” inquiring whether she would be willing to host a dinner for “the big Yelpers in Chicago.”

“And in return for hosting it — meaning paying for it — they would move my best reviews to the top,” Pinkney tells 2 Investigator Pam Zekman. “I was really stunned.”

Dr. Douglas James runs a group dental practice in the Loop. He says he got a call from a Yelp salesman who said, “We can hide or camouflage negative reviews if you advertise with us.”

James refused. Later his office manager, Linda Zimmer, received several other calls from different Yelp salesmen with a similar pitch.

“They would bury the negative reviews,” Zimmer recalls, “and they would bring up all of our positive reviews.”

James believes his continued refusal to buy advertising explains the low Yelp rating for his dental practice.

“I feel that Yelp is manipulating the reviews to encourage the businesses to purchase advertising with them,” he says.

Vincent Tan, the owner of a Loop restaurant called Simply Thalia, has similar suspicions. Tan says he got a call last year from a Yelp salesman who pointed to his low rating and said, “If we do this advertising, we would see some kind of result to change the rating.”

The cost to advertise would be $390 a month, Tan says. He refused.

In class-action lawsuits, other businesses have complained about the same sales tactics.

A business owner charged that “Yelp removed nine 5 star reviews” from her page when she refused to buy advertising, and her rating dropped from 5 stars to 3 stars. Days after she signed a one-year contract with Yelp for advertising, the lawsuit says her dental practice’s “various five star reviews were reinstated by Yelp” and that her overall rating went up to 4 stars.

Yelp denies the allegations, in a written statement to CBS 2.

“There has never been any amount of money you can pay Yelp to manipulate reviews and claims to the contrary have been repeatedly thrown out of court,” a spokeswoman said.

Last year, a judge dismissed the lead class-action suit, ruling that the Communications Decency Act immunizes providers of an interactive computer service, such as Yelp, from liability for what other people write. The California attorney who filed the suit is appealing the court ruling and declined comment.

Evan Brown, a Chicago attorney who specializes in technology law, reviewed the court ruling for CBS 2. He has represented Internet service providers and businesses who want to challenge what has been said about them.

“Nothing in this talk about the protection afforded these website operators stops the businesses who are being harmed from going after the individual Internet users that are actually posting that harmful content,” Brown noted.

Brown says business owners should monitor what is said about them and evaluate whether they should simply respond to critical reviews on the website.

And he has some advice consumers who rely on Yelp reviews.

“One should approach this content with a grain of salt,” Brown says.

On its website, Yelp explains that it uses an algorithm to try and filter out fake positive reviews that may be planted by a business or malicious negative reviews that may be planted by a company’s competitors or disgruntled former employees. The website says the algorithm “does not take into account whether the business is an advertiser or not.”

You can see the filtered reviews at the end of a business’ Yelp page by entering a password. But they don’t count in the business rating.

Yelp concedes on its website that “the filter sometimes affects perfectly legitimate reviews and misses some fake ones.”

That’s what Vincent Tan and Douglas James believe has happened all too often to them.

For example, Georgina Carranza, a patient at James’ Michigan Avenue Dental Associates for 10 years, wrote a positive Yelp review about the practice last January.

She says the review disappeared. It disappeared onto the Yelp website section devoted to filtered reviews.

As for Pinkney, she said she never looks at her restaurant’s Yelp page after what happened to her.

But when CBS 2 showed Pinkney the filtered reviews she, too, was puzzled about why five-star were filtered, including one from a customer who did not like a dish that the restaurant server replaced with another meal.

“And we didn’t even charge her for her dish or the replacement,” Pinkney said, reading from the review. “And now she’s a loyal customer. I wonder why that’s filtered.”

Here is the full statement from Yelp, in response to CBS 2’s inquiry:

“There has never been any amount of money you can pay Yelp to manipulate reviews and claims to the contrary have been repeatedly thrown out of court. Advertising and content on Yelp have always been separate and anyone can check out any advertiser’s page on Yelp to see for themselves that our review filter works the same for advertisers and non-advertisers alike.”

Yelp offers explanations about how its filters work at these links:




More from Pam Zekman
  • JACK

    I`m business owner in northwest sub. and somebody from yelp calls me almost every week, and it is exactly same story as in the story featured in channel 2 .I have concrete prof that reviews are being unfairly filtrated. please contact me .

  • Shirley

    I am not a business owner, I am a customer that frequents a local restaurant that I posted a review for on Yelp. It showed up the first night I wrote it and then it was gone. Since then, Yelp has sent many e-mails to me requesting more information in order to validate my review and post it. All these requests from Yelp to qualify me to be a “legitimate” reviewer left a bad taste in my mouth and seemed to be some sort of scam. Needless to say, I did not reply to their request for more personal information just so I coud give an honest review of a very good local restaurant. By the way, it’s “Chef Davitos Italian Ristorante” in Johnsburg,Illinois. Yelp is no longer a site I’ll be going to for recommendations.

  • Larry Horse's Arse Horse's Arse

    1. Realize first and foremost that Yelp is an advertising site – not a review site. Yelp reviews are, for the most part, red herrings. Yelp doesn’t care about the content or substance of reviews. Yelp just cares that there are reviews, from which Yelp can pitch businesses to advertise using what I would imagine is an elaborate flow chart full of sales avenues.

    2. Take everything you read on Yelp with a grain of salt. There are lots of fake and planted reviews on Yelp. And there are lots of uninformed reviewers on Yelp. Also, keep in mind that Yelp ratings skew high, meaning the majority of businesses have a 3.5/5 rating or higher.

    3. Yelp filters reviews and makes it not so easy to find them with their captcha at the bottom of every review page. Yelp will always fall back on their vaunted catch all explanation for everything – the algorithm – to explain the filtering process. Basically, what happens is that users who write one or two reviews and then never review again usually end up having their reviews filtered. Users who review more heavily don’t have their reviews filtered. But it’s not a fool proof process, as there are users with 100+ reviews who have reviews filtered.

    4. Yelp has parties about once a month for their “Elite” members where free food and/or drinks are showered upon them, with all costs footed by the hosting restaurant. Yelp has these parties so that their “Elite” members continue to write reviews, as more reviews equals potentially more ad dollars. I also wouldn’t doubt that Yelp indicates to prospective hosting restaurants that their ratings will go higher if they host.

    5. Yelp basically banks on business owners not being able to keep their eyes off of their rating pages. If you’re a business owner, you probably want to know, right? Probably the best thing business owners can do is put out an outstanding product and either ignore Yelp or get a business account and only respond privately and positively to Yelp reviewers. Otherwise, business owners are opening themselves up to a world of drama, which is palpable and craved on Yelp.

    Yelp can be helpful in finding a business. There are some good reviewers on Yelp. But nothing on Yelp can be verified, and the Yelp system is somewhat shady, so always take everything on it with a grain of salt because Yelp itself is a business trying to glean ad dollars from everything on its site.

    • Carrie

      I agree 110% with everthing in this comment!

  • Dave Wolff

    My business in reviewed at 3 1/2 stars. The problem is they leavein the bogus 1 star reviews and leave out the 11 valid mostly 5 star reviews. I don’t quite understand this? I have completely boycotted using Yelp as they are a scam site in my opinion.

  • Cheryl Lenart

    My business has most of the good reviews “filtered” on Yelp. There is a false review that is a lead review. I have asked Yelp to remove this and they will not. However, they send me a Yelp Update weekly to entice me to advertise. The same has happened on Google. I also have had phone calls from a few “businesses” — Reviewboost is one — that for the mere fee of $199 monthly they can keep the bad reviews off the sites. The call starts with “I see you have bad reviews…I can help you.” I just wish there was some way we can start a class action suit against Google, Yahoo, Yelp, Insider Pages and any other review site that makes their money on helping destroy small businesses.

  • irishmary24

    I recently joined Yelp to check out some places and leave reviews. I left a positive review for two local restaurants. I was shocked by the number of bad reviews these two small local places had. They are wonderful places, with great staff, food, ambience, etc. My reviews went straight to their filter site! So, I went through the ” captcha” steps to see the additional reviews. All the positive reviews were in the filtered site!! This seemed really fishy to me. I emailed Yelp, and said I really had a bad feeling about their mathematical system. I suggested a site or blog to start reviewing Yelp and their questionable system. It was a matter of Days after that Pam Zekman’s investigation was advertised on CBS! I never had an answer to my e-mail! When I saw Pam’s review, I KNEW it was true!!!! The negative reviews HAD to be planted there. Unbelievable!!!

  • Amanda

    I’m a very small business owner in a small town where people tend to use yelp often. My business has only ever had 5 star reviews… all of which have been filtered out leaving us with NO review stars at all. I am thankful that we have not received any negative reviews because yelp users do rely on that site a great deal and that would just kill us! If yelp claims that everyone has a right to voice their opinions on businesses, then yelp should not be allowed to have a filtering system at all AND businesses should also be allowed to remove themselves from yelp if so desired. Yelp, as big and influential as they are, should be held accountable for their impact on small businesses!

  • StevMerlee


    My business has been around for thirty years, but this past summer we almost went under. The economy has hurt us, but so has my two year battle with Yelp. We currently have three reviews showing – two are bad. And we have 41 reviews filtered. 36 of those are five star reviews.

    Is there a way to do a class action suit?

    • Evan Gordon

      There have been class action lawsuits. According to my attorney, that is not the way to go. As a matter of fact, most of the time a letter works and you don’t even need to pursue legal action. Part of our services include legal as well as social interaction.

  • Brad

    Yelp also has an unfortunate policy where they decide who can and cannot leave reviews. I had a disgruntled customer who got all their friends to “review” my business and none of them had ever used my services. Their reviews stood despite my ability to prove who I have actually provided services too. Yelp said since they “appeared legitimate” then they wouldn’t delete them.

    However, the majority of my business is providing services to other small business owners. I rarely deal with non-biz people (like the disgruntled person above). I had a dozen 5 star reviews from people who were actually customers that were deleted because they just happened to be business owners. But that is what my business is…. I provide design services to mainly small businesses. So how can Yelp say their reviews don’t count. They paid me money and were provided a service. They could have just as easily left negative reviews. Yelp states that their reviews were a conflict of interest yet fake reviews by one guy’s friends who I have never worked with… are valid?

  • Patrick

    Yelp is the modern day mafia; they try to extort “advertising money “ from small businesses that are just trying to keep their doors open for just one more day. Soulwich in Evanston just opened this year, they have great unique sandwiches. Yelp contacted the owners to advertise. Yelp wanted $400.00 a month to advertise and the owner explained that he was interested but could not afford it at this time. Since that phone call, the majority of his five star reviews were hidden and the one, two or three star review was placed first, on his Yelp page.
    Thank You; Pam Zekman and CBS Chicago, for exposing this cyber bully and showing them, for what they are “The Cyber Mafia” BOYCOTT YELP!!!!!

  • Krunch Kretschmar

    After unsuccessfully trying to get an ex-girlfriend posting off of my business yelp page (Which I never authorize to be put up) I finally took things into my own hands. If I hate yelp so much than I thought why not hit them were it counts, in the “Pocket Book” ! That’s right I am going strait at them and I will make a dent in their pocket book to a point where they WILL listen to me. I started a competitive site called “BLURBITNOW” this is an HONEST site where there are NO hidden reviews. everything is out in the open, If you are REALLY sick of YELP, then Help me spread the news about BLURBITNOW.com together we can hurt Yelp where it counts….In the WALLET.

  • Superior Tuckpointing

    I own a masonry business (SUPERIOR TUCKPOINTING)
    On September 11 2010, a client of ours who has 37 yelps under his belt; and posted a 5 star review for SUPERIOR TUCKPOINTING. Well after that review, I thought that yelp was the best thing ever to generate business.( not knowing what kind of nightmares may also come with it). Our sales increased by 50%, business was good; we went from 2 crews to 3 crews.

    Well after a few months of us being advertised on yelp, the phone calls / e-mails start pouring in from yelp; almost to the point of harassment. They want to generate more business for us.
    They told me that they will expose our business to the internet, and keep any bad reviews that we may get;at bay; all for what they say is a low price.
    I took what they said into consideration, and I decided that we had almost more work then we would want to handle; without hiring another crew. Believe it or not; it’s not easy finding seasoned masons that have good work ethics.Superior Tuckpointing is about quality. So I told yelp I was not interested.

    OK here comes the nightmare !
    On December 8, 2011 we get our first 1 star review. Now keep in mind, if this reviewer posted a valid review; I would not be posting here.
    This reviewer was not even on the condo association that we were contracted to do work for, and gave the crew a hard time because they were in her way from the start of the project ( she works out of the basement where we had are tools stored). I found this out from one of the board members.
    She went on to insinuate that we deceived the condo association out of several thousand dollars, by creating more work then we were contracted to do. This is not true! We have pictures to prove it. The rest of her post goes on to make us look like a fly by night dishonest company. She did have one valid complaint; in which one employee was terminated.
    Bottom line she posted an IGNORANT, UNTRUE,MALICIOUS review.
    The condo association was very happy with the work we had done for them.
    Although, they seemed unwilling to get involved with the dispute.
    Two days later, yelp takes our 5 star reviews off our main page, and leaves this one star reviewer with only one other negative yelp under her belt on our page. This left us with a 1 star rating.
    We have not had one call from any yelp consumers since this happened.
    I proceeded to e-mail yelp and request that they remove and investigate this reviewer, because we believe and have proof that this is a untrue review.
    Now what I get back from them is a automated response stating that there algorithm filter system is a state of the art filter, that it benefits both customer and business owner, and that businesses owners should not focus on one bad review, but to focus the over all reviews. But what happens when yelp takes all your good reviews, dumps them in there dreaded filter system, and changes a 5 star company to a one star company? NO CALL FROM YELP CONSUMERS! I feel that yelp is got to be doing something illegal here.I would like to be part of a class action law suit

  • http://travel2chicago.us/chicago-news-stories-forfeb-28-2012/ Chicago News Stories for Feb 28 2012 : Travel tips, hotels, restaurants, jobs and news | Travel 2 Chicago

    […] Monday was $3.91 — up more than 30 cents from a week ago. CBS 2′s Pamela Jones reports.2 Investigators: Businesses Yelping About Review-Driven Web SiteSome Chicago business owners say they felt pressured to advertise with Yelp or face negative […]

  • Buck

    Pam, this is an excellent article and badly needed so thank you.
    Unfortunately you left something important out.
    What is our worthless Attorney General Lisa Madigan doing about this?
    My guess is nothing.
    I would review her on YELP, but I know it would be filtered

  • Stop being naive!

    I have several close contacts at Yelp, so let me inform you how Yelp works.

    Yelp is a review website supported by advertisements. Websites like apartmentguide.com and other similar review websites show all submitted reviews– so what ends up happening? The business owners write fake reviews with throwaway e-mail addresses, that’s what. The reason that all the reviews don’t show on your Yelp pages is because if a user creates a Yelp account and writes only one review, there is no credibility for that user. It could be the business owner themselves, and Yelp programmed an algorithm to avoid this to help the integrity of their website. Why do some bad review appear all of a sudden? That new user starts writing more reviews and therefore gains more credibility as a real person/user. So their original reviews will start to appear. Readers– stop being so naive– just because a local business is a local business DOES NOT mean that they are honest. I understand the urge to side with a small business over a company like Yelp, but c’mon. Why are you putting all the blame on Yelp and automatically accepting what these business owners are saying for true? Have you never been conned even at a small level by a business? I live in Chicago and I can name several businesses that are no better than shady car salesman. It’s a dog-eat-dog world so these business will say whatever they want to clear their name. They will bend and twist words until it becomes a viable story to catch the eye of the news. If you want to talk more about this with me, reach out to me.

    • Irina

      We had customers who personally told us they would leave reviews on Yelp and Yelp kept them until we refused to advertise.

    • Ash

      sounds like yelps is paying you do some PR for them ………….maybe your naive

  • steve

    OK, Stop being naive.

    After reading your post,I think you are the one who is naive!
    It sounds like you never had all your 5 star reviews that are that are 100% legit and disappear off your business page, after you tell yelp your not interested in paying for there advertisement.

    So, naive whats yelp doing for you? your whole post sounds like a yelp plant trying to stomp out fires.

  • Wollogong

    I have reviewed a business and that business keeps succeeding in covering up negative reviews. Any lawsuit, count me in!

  • Beverly

    I am a dentist in Beverly Hills, and I have had exactly the same experience as the other disgruntled Yelp victims. I was contacted by someone who stated he could “get rid” of the two negative reviews I received on Yelp.(This was back in 2008, before I even knew what Yelp was) I declined, assuming he was some sort of computer hacker. I then noticed I had about five 5 star reviews. About two weeks after that contact, a Yelp rep called my office and asked if I would purchase ad space on Yelp. Once again, I declined .Lo and behold, right after that, only the two bad reviews remained. Since then, every positive review, except one, has been moved to the filtered file. The only positive review that was allowed to remain was from a patient who updated his review, publicly questioning why Yelp had removed it. They reinstated his review, but removed his Yelp comment! At last count, I have four bad reviews and 22 5 star reviews, but you’d never know it. Yelp has never responded to my inquiries regarding their strong-armed, under-handed and illegal tactics. One of the bad reviews isn’t even about my practice, and one was written by a patient who stated she would remove her bad review if I wrote off her balance, in effect, attempting to extort me. Yelp considers those “legitimate” reviews, but filters out those from loyal and happy patients who have been in my care for 10-20 years. Yelp should be put out of business, and anyone who works for them should be ashamed. Do not trust Yelp reviews.

  • disrupter

    Finally there is a place online where people can learn information about businesses and exercise their rights as consumers. These business owners are just angry that something like Yep exists, something that shows how lacking they can be, the poor customer service, etc. These business owners should focus more on running their businesses and less about a review site. If they were doing a good job, they would have good reviews. Just as many businesses benefit from Yelp as are hurt by them.

    Do you see The Ritz on here complaining? Or The French Laundry? No, because they are good at what they do and they don’t threaten lawsuits that will never go anywhere, instead they focus on running a business.

    Don’t like it that you got a bad review? Look in the mirror hard before the blame the messenger.

    • Irina

      They are too strong and well capitalized to mess with, so Yelp leave them along. Yelp target only a small guy

    • bob

      HEY!! Cant you read what business owners are saying ? YELP IS TRYING TOO EXTORT/ STRONG ARM THESE BUSINESSES.
      Ya, there may be some company’s on yelp that might try and cheat the system.
      But what about the ones that are getting hurt by yelp. Wake up man! You and naive should take a good long look in the mirror and get with reality.

  • Pablo

    The same thing happened to me. I have over 20 positive reviews on Yelp, and when I refused to advertise with them, They filtered all but 2 of them. You can view the other positive reviews, but you have to fill out a captcha form.

    If you want my story I’ll totally give it you, just reply to my comment, and I’ll get an email letting me know of your correspondence

  • Pablo

    By the way I’m in CA

  • alex

    Same thing happened to me in Northern California. Sales guy called and couldnt explain why all my 4+ star reviews were filtered and the BS reviews (you know the ones WHOSE ONLY REVIEW IS A NEGATIVE REVIEW OF YOUR PLACE AND THEY SAY GO TO XXX INSTEAD) were all left up. But he said if you advertise things could improve.I refused and he said “if you want to stick your head in the sand, go ahead”. I’m just waiting for the next class action lawsuit… I’m joining it.

  • Irina

    We are a small business in San Francisco. We had 4 stars before Yelp called us and offered advertising, we refused, then all our positive reviews were gone one by one. Now we have 2 stars, they keep reviews from people who made only 1 review. So their explanations about their filters are false.

  • David

    It’s unfair of Yelp to filter these reviews, especially since it can have such an impact on people’s business (which I wrote about the positive side on here: https://bitly.com/AzjWuv+). In the end, I suppose it is a business.

    I do use the site as a reviewer though and am constantly being requested to write reviews and give businesses five stars. The beauty of the website when it first started was that it was merely people going on and writing reviews on their own free will, for the most part.

  • Beverly


    • Carrie

      If all business stopped buying advertising from Yelp, Yelp would go belly up! STOP BUYING AD SPACE FROM YELP!!! Every time a small business buys anything from Yelp, it is just feeding the beast.

      • Dave Wolff

        I’ve also boycotted using Yelp as a customer. I know the results are bogus anyways. I’ve been using Tripadvisor.

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