Davide Cerretin owns an Italian Bistro named Botto Bistro in San Francisco, as with most people in his position he lives off advertising. Getting people in the door is how he keeps his head above water. So when the online review site Yelp contacted him, at one point fifteen to twenty times a week, he agreed to the $270 fee and became an advertised restaurant on the site. Everything was going well for the Bistro until they decided to not renew their advertising. Once the payments stopped all of the restaurants five-star reviews became one star reviews, and Cerretin claims a five-star review disappeared.
This might seem unbelievable, and maybe Cerretin might just be overly paranoid. That might be the case if it was an isolated incident but it wasn’t.
In 2009 Gregory Perrault, from Long Beach, received a few low ratings from disgruntled customers. After the reviews went live he received frequent high pressure phone calls from Yelp’s ad sales representatives promising that if he committed to a year of advertisement on Yelp, a cost of about 300 dollars, the reviews would go away. In 2009 the East Bay Express were able to find nine San Francisco businesses who had similar stories and the practice seems to be continuing. Now these predatory Godfather-like tactics are pretty terrifying on their own but the really scary part is that according to the government what they are doing is completely legal.
Recently the Ninth Circuit Court of appeals ruled that it was legal for Yelp to change ratings for restaurants in exchange for money. Meaning that Davide Cerretin and Gregory Perrault have no legal recourse to protect themselves from Yelp’s bullying practices. And it’s not just an issue for these two restaurant owners, this is a problem for the industry as a whole. Yelp has become one of the most popular review sites on the Internet, to the point that it is automatically integrated into phones and other mobile devices. And as a restaurant you are unable to opt out of being reviewed on the site. This means that many owners will have to pay Yelp for Ad revenue in order to stay open.
To combat this, some people have gotten creative, Davide Cerretin has gone as far as to offer customers 25% off their bill in exchange for a one star review on the site, which has led to some pretty awesome reviews, some customers upset “they wont deliver to San Diego“ or “there food arrived before I wanted it to come and brought back terrible memories of Italy” but even this is not immune from Yelp, Cerretin has now received a threatening E-mail from Yelp. Ironically they are not too keen on offering incentives in exchange for reviews.
One of the greatest things about the Internet is that it has brought democracy to many parts of modern life, anyone anywhere could tell you what they thought of a movie, a product, or try to emotionally destroy ego of a five-year old dancing. Everything online is fair game for judgment and ridicule. This, when it is used for good can help us move society forward. When it comes to a site that its sole purpose is to post reviews, in order to help people make an informed decision, of if they want hot wings or Gyros, you have to be neutral. That is the social contract we all are implicitly involved in. But the company is allowed to fudge the numbers for money, even if they repeatedly say that they would never, ever, not in a million years do anything like that. It means that the Internet is not a level playing field anymore. People with the cash get the higher reviews.
So, the next time you are trying to find some dessert, you might want to think about how much it cost to be named the “best Gelato in the city.”