Yelp - Ethical or Extortion?

Yelp boasts of being the premiere website portal where the general public can voice their views on just about any business and service. Up until the arrival of such sites, the airing of one's perspective was consider an opinion. Today, however, such judgments are elevated in status and are regarded as reviews.

A quick visit to Yelp will quickly reveal a "Search for" feature where you can effortless begin to search out any business in the country. With a couple quick clicks you're up and running, reading the wall-to-wall reviews.

Seems like a great idea, right?

For the thousands of businesses who are in good standing with Yelp, I'd have to say it's highly beneficial, but for the thousands of businesses who Yelp deems unworthy, the consequences are anything but favorable.
yelp [yelp] verb - to utter a sharp or high-pitched cry or bark, often indicating pain (esp of a dog)
Take me for instance. A quick search for Orange County Photographer,  Mark Jordan Photography shows positive reviews from every site that posts them. Google Reviews posts 31 of them, all 5 Star. CitySearch has 18 reviews - all 5 Star. MerchantCircle with 14 reviews, again all 5 Star. The list goes on and on.

So how about Yelp? I have 15 reviews so far - also all 5 Star. Yet anyone visiting my site would never know. Why? They've all been removed, or what Yelp euphemistically refers to as "filtered." Why? If I knew the answer to this, there would be no need for my post.

Before I continue, a short look back in the very recent past is in order.

About a year ago I received a call from a Yelp salesman, Brandon. He highlighted my many, 5 Star reviews while delivering a persuasive pitch about how advertising with Yelp would dramatically increase my business. We shared several phone conversations, and though I was impressed, in the end Yelp's fees were more than I wanted to pay. Were I a restaurant owner or contractor, I'd have signed-up for sure. Being a portrait photographer, however, I wasn't confident the cost was worth the risk or that Yelp could perform as promised.

Brandon and I parted ways and thought nothing of it - that is until the following week when I noticed all my reviews had mysteriously disappeared. I called Brandon to ask him what happened, whereupon he assured me that declining Yelp's offer to advertise had nothing to do with my reviews vanishing: "Even though the reviews had been posted for quite some time, it was just a matter of coincidence that your reviews were filtered subsequent to declining Yelp's offer to advertise."

When I inquired as to how my reviews were filtered, Brandon explained that "Jeremy" (Yelp's CEO) installed a special program which determines which reviews are trustworthy and relevant, and which are not. It seemed that Yelp simply decided that the reviews that were once evaluated as worthy, having met all their guidelines, suddenly no longer were.

Okay, seems fair enough. Nothing furtive here. One day my reviews are relevant, for a protracted period, and then right after declining to partner with Yelp, they're removed.

Are you buying this?
No Yelp for you!
Makes a grown man want to, well, yelp! 

In the interest of time, suffice it to say, this same scenario has been repeated on the reviews written about my photography studio ever since. Every single one of my reviews are now filtered. I don't know about you, but from my perspective, something doesn't seem quite right here.

If you're wondering about an "appeal" process, none exists. Yelp's decision is final. No Yelp for you!

Does it hurt? Sure it does. Not only are the visitors to my
business told that my portrait studio does not merit a review, the clients who have invested their time are being silenced from sharing their positive experiences. It's enough to make a grown man yelp!

Just so you understand that nothing is peculiar about the reviews written about my studio, here's an example of a typical one:
"Mark did an exceptional job on my corporate head shots. He has a true talent for bringing out the best in his subjects. My photos were professional AND captured my personality. I highly recommend him." 
The client who posted the review above included her name (Janet B) and even the headshot I created. You can see for yourself (along with the many filtered reviews that have yet to be deleted).

A quick review of Yelp's guidelines will show that my client's assessment fulfills their protocol to the tee. In fact, this review, along with all the reviews written about Mark Jordan Photography, could not better define what Yelp is looking for in a trustworthy, relevant review. And yet her voice is "filtered," along with thousands upon thousand of voices like her - all who simply desire to share their experiences.


So then, is Yelp ethical or is it extortion?

To be frank, I do truly do not know - I can only share my experience.

However, I am convinced if Yelp does not either develop a more transparent method of filtering its reviews and answering questions to customers like me, it won't be too long before will not only define Yelp as a high-pitched cry of pain, but added to the definition of unscrupulous:

Un·scru·pu·lous [uhn-skroo-pyuh-luhs] adjective not scrupulous; unrestrained by scruples;
conscienceless; unprincipled - YELP!

©Googtoon - Life • Popular Culture • Politics • Entertainment • Public Figures


ADDENDUM: 7-24-12
One review was restored and is now posted, the one review that was not filtered is now filtered, and four other 5 star reviews were removed altogether - Yelp representative stated that they were "possible conflicts of interest."

ADDENDUM: 10-10-12
One review remains (an active Yelper), eleven now filtered, with four removed altogether.

ADDENDUM: 02-02-15
Eight reviews remain (all actives Yelpers, which it appears to be the key to having a review stick), sixteen now actively filtered, with an undetermined number of reviews removed altogether.

ADDENDUM: 01-29-17
I've been very fortunate to have 59 grateful clients express their appreciation with 5 Star since my last post. Unfortunately, only 35 remain unfiltered. The count was 43 a few months back when I carelessly answered the phone from a Yelp ad salesman. After declining and kindly expressing to the man my concerns, the very next day, all but 27 were filtering. Since then I am careful to never pickup the phone when I see the area code of 415.