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February 18, 2009

Kathleen Richards - East Bay Express

Updates here: East Bay Express Story Unravels

Today the East Bay Express ran a lengthy story that accuses Yelp of manipulating review order for money. As we've said many-a-time we do not do this and you don't have to take my word for it. Let's take a quick look at an advertiser...

As you can see while the first review is positive (and very clearly marked up) the reviews below are neutral and yes even negative. This is quite normal and if you look around the site and click on some ads you'll find plenty of advertisers with reviews that look like... well, everybody else.

We showed this evidence to Kathleen, but it didn't find prominent placement in her story. Beyond this obvious point I have three additional issues with the story I'd like to highlight (thanks for bearing with me!).

1. Heavy reliance on anonymous sources.

Kathleen relied on five anonymous sources and only three non-anonymous sources. Use of anonymous sources is fraught with hazards and is strongly discouraged by most editors, as explained by the American Journalism Review, "Editors around the country...agoniz[ed] over the use of anonymous sources, fearing they were relying on them too heavily, damaging the press' credibility in the process."

Anonymous Sources:
John, an East Bay restaurateur "scam"
Mark, a former yelp "contractor" and business owner "no interest in curbing illegitimate reviews."
Joe, a business owner "sounds like the Mafia"
Mary, a photographer "I'm a little curious why my reviews are disappearing."
Ellen, an Oakland business owner "The prices were cost-prohibitive"

Named Sources:
Robert Gaustad, Bobby G's
Greg Quinn, Anabelle's Bar
Mary Seaton, Sofa Outlet

2. Reliance on at least one source with serious credibility issues.

Sadly at least one of the named sources is affiliated with a business that has spent a considerable amount of time and energy trying to mislead customers like you with fake reviews. Below is a sample of some of the many reviews we've removed from Sofa Outlet's page:

sofaoutlet2@xxxxxxx.com - rating 5/5 stars - I went into the store not knowing what I was looking for. The sales team really helped me to narrow down what I was looking for and at such a good price. I am now relaxing on my new comfortable leather sofa watching the NBA finals! The delivery staff was great as well! I just went in to get a big leather ottoman and had a superbowl party in which everyone loved the furniture.

sofaoutlet2@yyyyyyy.com - rating 5/5 stars - Great place to shop! Lots of choices and lots of options! I am so happy with all of items that I have purchased from this little cute store hidden in San Mateo. My only complaint is that the sofa came too fast and I was not able to donate my old one in time.

3. The accusatory thrust of article is essentially overturned at the very end.

In her words...

Interviews with more than a dozen local business owners suggest that Yelp sales reps may be wording their sales pitches more carefully these days. Owners who were approached by Yelp in recent months said they were told they could choose one positive review that would appear at the top of their page, which would clearly be denoted as a "sponsored review."

And plenty of Yelp advertisers still have negative reviews on their pages. "You pretty much have to fight tooth or nail to get a bad review moved or removed," said one East Bay restaurant advertiser, who wished to remain anonymous. Peter Snyderman, the owner of Elite Cafe, said his sales rep never mentioned moving negative reviews.