Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s knowledge ecosystem.
The overall argument of Billion Dollar Bully, the new documentary about Yelp released on Amazon and iTunes in May, is that Yelp extorts small business owners for advertising fees in return for helping to manage and improve reviews on their platform. Earnest and fiery throughout, the film allows the aggrieved parties ample time to vent. The film opens, for example, with Davide Cerretini, owner of a San Francisco Italian restaurant, who claims that Yelp’s salespeople called him 20 times a week pressuring him to advertise on the platform. He finally acquiesced and agreed to a six-month contract, which he did not renew. Once he stopped paying for advertising, Cerretini claims his positive reviews vanished, only to be replaced with new and mysterious negative reviews. “To me, it’s mafia,” Cerretini says in the film.
In another example, Danny Teran describes how his Brooklyn restaurant was falsely accused of inflating its Yelp reviews and had their page marked with a “consumer alert” pop-up, a digital scarlet letter that turned off potential customers. When he tried to call Yelp, there was no ability to speak to a human representative from the company about the issue—unless he was interested in buying Yelp ads. “There is nothing you can do!” says an exasperated Teran.
Yelp has fought back against the allegations made in the film, arguing that “There has never been a connection between ratings and reviews on Yelp and buying advertising.” After the film’s release, Jason Brown at ReviewFraud.org suggested that at least some examples of extortion presented in the film were dubious. But the issue for small business owners has always been broader than advertising: Local businesses feel that Yelp offers no due process to resolve disputes and misunderstandings. That’s because the company’s standard position is to absolve itself of any responsibility to get involved.
The documentary includes a clip from a 2013 interview on The Charlie Rose Show in which Yelp’s co-founder Jeremy Stoppelman claims his company is “just like Wikipedia—it’s open to all comers.” Presumably Stoppelman means that both sites use a crowdsourcing model to aggregate information. But even a cursory review shows that Yelp and Wikipedia are not all that similar. Yelp is a publicly traded company that earns revenue from online advertising, whose name stems from an amalgamation of “yellow pages” and “help.” On the other hand, Wikipedia is a project of the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation that relies on user donations (which is why from time to time the site displays those pesky black-and-yellow banners asking you to support the site for the price of a cup of coffee).
Yelp and Wikipedia also differ dramatically in their approach to facts. In Yelp’s case, the company prefers not to get involved at all. A spokesperson for Yelp told me in an email that “We don’t take sides in factual disputes, so in these cases, we recommend that businesses use Yelp’s free response tools to respond and address that review, stating the facts and their company policy.” Unless the review is found to violate Yelp’s terms of service or content guidelines, it’s likely to remain on the site. If someone leaves an inaccurate review, Yelp recommends that the owner use Yelp’s “free response tools” to address that review. Needless to say, this isn’t very comforting to local businesses. The film features Dawn King, a registered nurse, who claimed a former employee left a fake review on the Yelp page for the medical office of Dr. David H.C. King, a urologist, as retaliation for being terminated. In the review, the ex-employee claimed that King had botched her surgery (an event that never happened). Yelp’s standard position that the business should work it out with the reviewer is unlikely to be successful in cases such as this, where one party is clearly acting in bad faith. (Note: It appears Yelp has now removed the fake review of Dr. King for violating the site’s terms of service.)
While Yelp generally absolves itself of factual disputes, Wikipedia sits at the other extreme: The community of Wikipedia editors famously debates the facts 24/7/365. (The nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation supports the community volunteers and provides the technology for hosting Wikipedia and Wikimedia sites but does not directly involve itself in editorial policy, which is self-policed by the community of volunteer editors.) And there is general willingness within the Wikipedia community to delete obvious falsehoods and vandalism. When actress Doris Day’s page was defaced with a graphic image shortly after her death in May, the issue was resolved within a few minutes. Wikipedia’s processes and policies do not always work perfectly, of course, but the site is committed to building a neutral and informative encyclopedia, and that means bad information simply must come down.
When I contacted Yelp about the claims made in the documentary, a spokesperson told me that the company used several tools to detect illegitimate reviews: automated recommendation software, human moderators who work full-time on the Yelp support team, and functionality for users to flag suspicious content. The company is especially proud of its automated software. A spokesperson said in an email, “Our recommendation software has always been engineered to surface the most useful and reliable reviews, and has been improved over time to be even more effective at sifting fake and biased reviews, and attempts by businesses to game the system.”
But notice how Yelp does not promise that a small business owner can speak to a Yelp representative or appeal to any sort of third-party arbitrator about taking down a fake review. This is likely cost-driven. Adding a formal process to consider contentious reviews would be highly expensive for the company, which has been publicly traded since 2012. The documentary also highlights how Yelp is virtually invulnerable to lawsuits. The company’s terms require that all claims be brought in the state and federal courts of San Francisco, which is challenging for out-of-state and international plaintiffs. Furthermore, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act generally protects internet companies from being sued for content they host for which they haven’t assumed responsibility. In sum, a local business that has been damaged from a false review has little recourse from Yelp itself, nor via the traditional legal system, and no ability to opt out of the platform. It’s little wonder the small business owners interviewed in Bully appear so dejected.
Yelp is combating the claims made in the film by purchasing the domain BillionDollarBully.com and redirecting it to a Yelp page that explains that the company does not extort local businesses to manipulate ratings. A company spokesperson told me that the extortion conspiracy theory has been disproven by independent scholarly studies, including one by Harvard Business School. (The film notes the limitations of the HBS study, which focused specifically on the Boston metropolitan area.) Yelp has also launched a Google Ad campaign to “educate people” about the allegations made in the documentary.
Speaking of Google … I reached out to Bully’s director, Kaylie Milliken, to ask a question that wasn’t specifically addressed in the film: If people shouldn’t use Yelp, what site should they use instead? I have written before about a “duty to Yelp” by writing online reviews for small businesses, but even in that piece, I clarified that I wasn’t wedded to Yelp as the platform. Did Milliken have a better recommendation, perhaps Google Reviews or TripAdvisor? Milliken demurred. “It’s hard to be a legitimate review site when you have a fiduciary duty to investors,” she said, noting the tension companies face between generating advertising revenue and keeping costs low. Milliken also challenged me to consider why we need online reviews at all. “I think it’s important to get off the computer and just experience things for yourself or ask for recommendations from trusted members of your community,” Milliken said. While I admire the humanism of this approach, it seems a bit idealistic. Many of us do get much of our information online, usually for expediency, but also because it’s not always practicable or comfortable to ask a close friend—for example, while traveling to a new city or researching a new doctor.
Instead of unplugging from all review sites, we might reconsider what we expect from internet knowledge platforms when it comes to informational accuracy. Taking further responsibility contradicts Yelp’s standard position, as expressed to me by their spokesperson and voiced repeatedly in the documentary: We do not get involved in factual disputes. But washing their hands of responsibility for misinformation may not be a viable long-term solution for Yelp or similar websites. A combination of factors might ultimately spur a change: revisions to Section 230 of the CDA, government regulation of online speech, further public outcry, or a renewed sense of corporate and digital citizenship. Until then, allegations that Yelp’s system is unfair will continue.