Yelp Is Now Disappointing Internet Pioneers

The last thing Yelp needs right now is a public imbroglio with an upset internet luminary. But the local-reviews website sure has one, on top of many new lawsuits from merchants and an embarrassing tiff with Google.

Yelp has crossed Philip Greenspun, known for his pioneering work publishing long-form Web content and for starting, more than 15 years ago, a large and technically sophisticated community website — the sort of place Yelp could be if the startup spent less time organizing bacchanals and more time refining code.

A former MIT computer science instructor and startup founder, Greenspun now helps train helicopter pilots for the East Coast Aero Club. In an effort to drum up business, the club asked customers to write reviews on Yelp, an experience Greenspun wrote about in an recent book review and then in a blog entry titled "The extortionists at Yelp:"

We asked our customers to register with Yelp and post reviews... About 15 of them did so and the Yelp page was filled with positive reviews. A few days later, however, we looked and 11 of them had been removed. Now it is down to just 2 reviews.

Another friend said "Just wait; they are going to call you up soon and ask you to pay them a monthly fee. Then they will restore the positive reviews. Companies with a lot of negative reviews get the same call; if they pay a fee the negative reviews are removed."

A Yelp employee later contacted Greenspun to "obliquely confirm... my suspicion that the algorithm might suppress reviews from people who register, post one review, and leave." In light of that, Greenspun said the site's policies "might not be unreasonable," but were still pretty "tough" on his business, since his limited pool of customers tend not to use ordinarily use Yelp.

Indeed, Yelp's dependence on a cadre of regular users is a "tough" break for many businesses besides Greenspun's flight club. It places disproportionate influence in the hands of a limited group of people with plenty of money to spend in restaurants, bars and shops; with time on their hands to write reviews; and an inclination to work free at advancing Yelp's bottom line, without getting so much as a full-name byline in return. Restaurants and other merchants feel obliged to wine and dine this group at Yelp-sanctioned "Yelp Elite" events and less formal contexts, leaving ordinary users to guess at which reviews have been influenced by payola and which haven't.

Then there are merchants who, like Greenspun, can't get Yelp reviews from their happy customers to stick, and don't feel like paying Yelp to get a "favorite review" moved to the top of their Yelp listing, a favor Yelp openly acknowledged selling to customers ("clearly marked"). Said merchants have been suing like mad; since February 24, when we posted a veterinarian's class-action lawsuit alleging Yelp extortion, a spa owner filed yet another class action, nine other business filed a class-action and a furniture restorer filed his own suit.

Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman says he has to kill some positive reviews to keep his site unbiased:

If a business could garner a top rating on Yelp simply by soliciting 5-star reviews from friends, family, and favored customers, how useful would such a site be?

It's a good question, but so is this one: If a business could garner a top rating on Yelp simply by paying $300 per month for "Favorite Review" privileges or simply by throwing free parties for the "Yelp Elite Squad," how useful would such a site be?

UPDATE: We solicited Greenspun for comment, and he wrote us back to say he's not "pissed off" at Yelp as our original headline had it, but he is "disappointed:"

I don't think it is accurate to say that Yelp has pissed me off! I was
disappointed that they killed off all of our flying nerds' reviews.
But they do have a tough spam problem. I think that they need to
figure out some way to motivate a business like ECAC to invite its
customers to become users of Yelp so that Yelp is sure that these are
legitimate distinct people (not just two friends of the owner with
multiple identities).

[Photo of Philip Greenspun in an R-44 helicopter courtesy Ellis Vener.]