Yelp's rating system under fire by local business owners

Watch the report from Action News. (WPVI)
May 6, 2014 9:41:45 AM PDT
Online reviews have become a popular way for customers to voice their opinion. Action News investigates the reliability of the star rating system for one of the most widely used business ranking sites in the country - Yelp.

Yelp has been around for nearly a decade. And since its start, the site has relied on its users' opinions to rate everything from restaurants and auto repair shops to dog walkers.

But we were contacted by small business owners who say they believe their favorable rankings were suddenly reduced because they wouldn't pay up for costly advertising.

Serving up pizza pies has been in Rosario Bevilacqua's family for 35 years. And he's worked hard to keep his new pizzeria - named Rosario's, located off the Pennsylvania Turnpike - filled with happy customers.

"We do get a lot of traffic from out-of-towners," Bevilacqua said.

Bevilacqua says a big part of his business was driven by positive online reviews - that is, until last year.

"I went from being 4.5 stars to 1 star," Bevilacqua said.

Multiple glowing reviews on his profile were suddenly hidden, filtered in a hard-to-find section Yelp says are "not recommended." The reason, Bevilacqua believes, is he turned down advertising pitched to him by a telephone salesman from Yelp.

"It was a lot of money; it was like over $300 a month just to do advertising," Bevilacqua said.

Brian Dunn from Dunn and Danese Insurance in Drexel Hill has also been battling with Yelp after he stumbled across a negative review, the only one on his site from a disgruntled customer.

"I contacted Yelp and asked them to have it removed," Dunn said.

Dunn, too, noticed his positive reviews from happy customers were being filtered. He says it happened shortly after he was contacted by Yelp.

"It is funny, you get a phone call from a sales person from Yelp stating that 'We can help you get it up to 3 stars if you spend $350 a month with us,'" Dunn said.

And adding to that insult, Dunn says, was an advertisement from a local competitor posted on his Yelp review page just a few days later.

He says he was told by a Yelp representative, "That, too, can go away for a price."

Better Business Bureau records show in the past 6 months over 50 complaints have been filed about what business owners call aggressive advertising practices.

In the same time, over 100 businesses have complained about Yelp filtering out positive reviews.

"There are probably a lot more. There are probably 500, 1000 businesses out there that feel this has happened to them," Gene O'Neill of the BBB said.

However, the Better Business Bureau tells Action News after investigating it doesn't feel aggressive advertising is a part of Yelp's business model and currently gives the review site an A+ rating.

Yelp tells Action News its reviews are filtered by automated recommendation software.

Those favorable reviews might be filtered out because the software weeds out what it determines are fake posts by friends and family, those that may slam a competitor, or show bias by a company soliciting for positive feedback.

Yelp believes Dunn was soliciting customers for reviews and insists advertising dollars don't factor into this system.

But some business owners don't buy it.

"There are small businesses being hurt by a company capitalizing on one person being upset and 10 people being happy," Dunn said.

The BBB says a good tip for business owners is to take a screen shot of their Yelp profile before any problems start.

Yelp stands by its complex system. A representative also told Action News there are ways to make sure your reviews don't end up in the filtering system, including becoming a free elite member.

Yelp Statement:

"There has never been any amount of money a business can pay Yelp to manipulate reviews and our automated recommendation software does not 'punish' those who don't advertise.

"Our software is engineered to highlight the most useful and reliable content on our site, which usually comes from our most active and engaged users. In cases where businesses have a large number of reviews that aren't recommended, it's often because they've solicited positive reviews from friends, family or favorite customers or tried to game the system by writing fake reviews for themselves. Yelp does not support these practices as they result in biased reviews which aren't useful to consumers. " Advertiser FAQ

Tips to get your review recognized from Yelp:

"Sign up for a free Yelp account at and can use Yelp on their mobile device(s) by downloading the free app. Once they've created a free Yelp account, users can begin writing reviews, adding friends, checking into and adding photos of businesses, engaging on Talk and RSVPing to events being held in their city.

"Yelp Elite are role-model Yelpers who embody the spirit of Yelp ? both online and off ? and write useful, funny and cool reviews. They are our most engaged and active users, the local tastemakers in a city, who are passionate about local businesses and sharing their experiences. Users can nominate themselves for the Elite Squad at if they think they're ready to become Elite. Users can also nominate any other community members they think are a great representation of the Yelp community.

"Yelp aims to highlight the most useful and reliable content to consumers, which right now is about 75% of the reviews submitted to the site. More often than not, that content comes from our core community of active and engaged users. "