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Yelp with "Real People, Real Reviews" may have lost the public trust by leverging their ability to manipulate content to generate ad revenues

Although business review Web site Yelp may seem like a grassroots exchange of helpful information about businesses between Internet users, allegations of a manipulative system of cash in exchange for removing bad reviews is leading some to cry extortion.

According to an exposé  by the East Bay Express News, business owners have complained of receiving unsolicited calls from Yelp offering to place bad reviews in less prominent positions or remove them altogether if the company involved agreed to advertise to the tune of $299 a month.

The East Bay Express reported that “during interviews with dozens of business owners over a span of several months, six people told this newspaper that Yelp sales representatives promised to move or remove negative reviews if their business would advertise.”

A Chicago Tribune investigation revealed the problem was not limited to the Bay Area, with Chicagoland business owners lodging similar complaints of extortion.

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While Yelp touts itself as “Real people.  Real reviews,” any business owners say they suspect the company itself wrote some of the bad reviews.

In an interview with The Register, CEO Jeremy Stoppleman refuted the charges of nefarious advertising tactics:

 “I think [these business owners] are mischaracterizing what’s going on. There is no bumping of reviews.  There is a remote chance that we have some sort of rogue sales person, but I think that it’s more likely it’s just a business owner that’s pissed off about reviews on his page.”

While Yelp continues to deny the allegations, business owners from across the nation continue to wage protest, giving a pretty good indication that the charges may not be so baseless after all.  Although the old standby has always been, “Let the buyer beware,” in the age of the Web 2.0, both the business owner as well as the reviewer are the ones who ought to be extra cautious.

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