A high-profile Vancouver optometrist is the latest to join the chorus of small-business owners accusing a popular customer review website of extortion.
Alan Boyco, the long-time team optometrist for the Vancouver Canucks, the Vancouver Giants and the B.C. Lions, said a representative from Yelp contacted him in 2013 to discuss advertising his 16 Metro Vancouver Image Optometry locations on the site.
Curious, Dr. Boyco says he agreed to a six-month trial, paying roughly $1,500 a month from July to December that year for an enhanced profile that included polished, professional-looking pages. While initially pleased, he noticed a few months in that the ads didn't drive more traffic, as promised, and decided to cancel after the half-year trial. That's when things got ugly, he says.
"They really tried hard to convince me to continue and I couldn't be convinced to retain their services," Dr. Boyco said in an interview on Wednesday. "When I stopped advertising with them, [many] of my positive reviews were filtered out. I noticed that when someone would tell me they had posted a positive review, I'd look at it, and then it would disappear – usually in a day. When I was active [advertising], all of the reviews were going up, good or bad."
Dr. Boyco's Guildford location, for example, currently has one one-star review prominently featured on its Yelp page. However, scrolling down and clicking on a greyed-out tab of "other reviews that are not currently recommended" reveals more than two dozen others, which range from critical one-star reviews to glowing, five-star praise.
When Dr. Boyco raised his concerns with Yelp, a senior account manager described the recommendation software as an "automated system that runs on a complex algorithm" to weed out those trying to game the system. "We keep advertising and reviews completely separate to avoid any conflict of interest," Yelp's Zach Schafer wrote in an e-mail to Dr. Boyco.
In an interview on Wednesday, Morgan Remmers, Yelp's senior manager of local business outreach, insisted Yelp has never been "and never will be, that pay-to-play website."
She said the recommendation software screens reviews based on a number of factors – including IP and e-mail addresses – but acknowledged how the secrecy of the algorithm could fuel skepticism from business owners.
"There has never been any amount of money you can pay Yelp to manipulate your reviews," she said. "On the flip side, our automated recommendation software does not penalize those who do not choose to advertise with us."
Further, Ms. Remmers countered that Dr. Boyco had previously had a Yelp account closed for submitting misleading content himself – an accusation he vehemently denied.
The California-based company has been accused by numerous small-business owners across North America of giving paying clients more favourable reviews. The issue has come up so many times that Yelp's online support centre includes a page titled: "Does Yelp extort small businesses?" (First sentence of the answer: "No.")
In September, a U.S. federal appeals court judge upheld a judge's earlier dismissal of a proposed class-action suit by small-business owners, saying the site has no obligation to post positive reviews.
"As Yelp has the right to charge for legitimate advertising services, the threat of economic harm that Yelp leveraged is, at most, hard bargaining," Justice Marsha Berzon said.
In response, small-business owners have gotten creative in expressing their disdain for the review site. Botto Bistro, a Yelp-hating Tuscan restaurant in Richmond, Calif., began trolling the review site by offering 50 per cent off any pizza in exchange for a one-star review.
"Our restaurant is so awful that Yelp has had to remove over 2,200 one-star reviews from our account because [they] made their site look bad," it says on the restaurant's website.
Dr. Boyco, who contemplated taking legal action until being discouraged by the September decision, said he is now mulling a promotional campaign to offer free eye exams to frequent Yelp reviewers.
"Rather than give Yelp money, I'd rather give it to people who support us. They have to prove that they're serial Yelpsters, but they don't have to [write a review]. It's their choice."