It's evening in New York. The owners of a small, family owned pizzeria are washing dishes and wiping down tables, preparing to go home for the night. A man walks in. He is friendly enough. He tells them that they have a nice restaurant, and it would be a shame if something happened to it. He says he can protect them... for a price.
Extortion. Fraud. Racketeering.
It sounds like the plot to a cheesy mafia movie, but it is exactly what Yelp is being accused of in the upcoming documentary Billion Dollar Bully.
Directed by Kaylie Milliken and produced by Prost Productions, the documentary was inspired when her doctor complained about negative reviews from a patient who did not exist. They have since raised over $90,000 on Kickstarter.
According to interviews with business owners who were approached by Yelp, if they didn't agree to buy advertising with the company, then positive reviews for their business would disappear from their profile, and negative one would go to the top (eater.com).
Another tactic supposedly used is falsely flagging restaurants for buying positive reviews by offering free meals or money. As this is against Yelp's terms of service, they have the ability to punish them.
With alleged practices like these, the metaphor of a digital Cosa Nostra seems to fit. In fact, many restauranteurs approached for the interview declined to be on camera, fearing retaliation from Yelp.
Kaylie has stated that she is not out to dissuade people from using Yelp, only examine their business practices. But while she is not seeking to hurt Yelp, it appears she has. Their stock went down 4% when the Kickstarter campaign was going on (businessinsider.com)
In Yelp's defense, the Federal Trade Commission investigated the company, and closed its investigation after not finding sufficient evidence.
Yelp has declined interview request by the documentary, but when the movie started to get traction, they launched a smear campaign against Kaylie, alleging that she is ignoring facts and is herself guilty of trying to create fake positive reviews for her husband's law firm (CNBC).
Yet it seems like their attempts to discredit the documentary has only generated more interest in what it has to say.
The documentary has completed filming and had some limited screenings, but has yet to be released to the general public. We will have to wait until it is out to make any final decisions. But what is clear is that Yelp has become a very divisive topic, both for restaurant owners and users.
South Park has done an episode on Yelp, having the character Cartman using Yelp to bully restaurant owners into humiliating themselves and giving him free food. Family Guy as well has taken shots at the company, calling Yelp a "weapon for dumb people".
Whatever the truth of the documentary's claims, Yelp is facing a public relations issue. Whether they make a peace, or go to the mattresses, we will have to wait and see.