Yelp's tactics feel 'nefarious' and 'fishy,' even if they're legal

It could be said that Yelp creates a problem for businesses and then offers to fix it — for a price.

Among the frequently asked questions on Yelp's website, there's this: "Will Yelp remove or reorder bad reviews if a business pays for sponsorship?"

And the answer: "No. You can't pay us to remove or reorder your bad reviews — it's just that simple."

It's not that simple, at least if you listen to the many small-business owners who say Yelp routinely uses bad reviews and competitors' ads as leverage to get merchants to cough up some cash.

"They continually harass you and strong-arm you to get you to pay for their service," said Randy Boelsems, 64, who runs a boating supply company in Fountain Valley.

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And if you don't play ball, he said, it's likely that negative reviews about your company will be featured more prominently than positive ones.

Such criticism isn't new, though it appears that Yelp has found new ways to lean on business owners. Earlier this week, I wrote about an Alhambra jeweler who said that after he canceled his Yelp ad, a saleswoman for the site contacted him to warn that competitors' ads would now appear with his listing.

"She said that for $75 a month, she could make those ads go away," Rick Fonger, 62, told me.

A Yelp spokesman, Vince Sollitto, defended this practice by saying merchants are being offered the chance to buy out the ad space accompanying their reviews.

Looked at another way, though, it could be said that Yelp creates a problem for businesses and then offers to fix it — for a price.

Kurt Snider, co-owner of a Solana Beach video production company, also was told by Yelp that if he wanted a rival's ad off his listing, it would cost him.

"It's unfair and unethical," he said. "It should be illegal."

Yelp has faced a number of lawsuits over its practices. They have been dismissed for lack of evidence, a company spokeswoman said.

In a 2011 decision, U.S. District Judge Edward M. Chen in San Francisco ruled that Yelp is protected by the federal Communications Decency Act when it decides which reviews to feature on its site.

The 1996 law shields websites from being sued for the content they publish, such as Nazi memorabilia offered for sale on EBay or hate speech in a discussion forum.

"From a small-business angle, is what Yelp does distasteful?" said Erik Syverson, a Los Angeles lawyer specializing in Internet law. "Yes," but that doesn't make it illegal.

Antone Johnson, a San Francisco lawyer who formerly worked as vice president of legal affairs for the dating site eHarmony, offered a similar perspective. He used words like "nefarious," "crafty" and "fishy" to describe Yelp's practices.

"It doesn't pass the smell test," Johnson said. "But I don't see a statute that they're actually violating."

I spoke with a number of small-business owners who related stories about Yelp demanding payment to remove malicious reviews or being uncooperative in addressing false claims.

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