Yelp Sued For Offering To Bury Bad Reviews In Exchange For Ads
A California veterinary center has sued review site Yelp for allegedly promising to bury bad reviews in exchange for purchasing $3,600 worth of advertising on the site.
"Yelp frequently exercises its control over the Yelp.com listing application to modify business listing pages to the advantage of businesses that purchase Yelp advertising subscriptions, and the disadvantage of those that decline," Cats and Dogs Animal Hospital owner Gregory Perrault alleges in a complaint (PDF) filed in federal district court in the central district of California.
Cats and Dogs, based in Long Beach, alleges that Yelp violated California's business code. The company is seeking class-action status.
Perrault says in his complaint that his dispute with Yelp stemmed from two "defamatory" reviews that appeared on the site. The posts allegedly included statements like "Dr. Perrault is the rudest vet I've ever been to" and "my poor dog was terrified of him."
Perrault says in his lawsuit that shortly after these reviews appeared, he began receiving "frequent, high-pressure calls from Yelp advertising employees, who promised to manipulate Cats and Dogs' Yelp.com listing page in exchange for Cats and Dogs purchasing an advertising subscription."
Specifically, he alleges that a Yelp sales representative promised to move the reviews to the bottom of its results, ensure that they did not appear in search engine results, and also allow the hospital to decide which order reviews would appear in on Yelp, in exchange for a one-year $300-a-month ad buy.
The lawsuit was filed one year after the East Bay Express reported in an explosive article that some business owners were alleging that Yelp sales representatives offered to bury bad reviews in exchange for ad purchases. Yelp's CEO disputed the allegations.
Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman says that it's not clear how far the case will get in court. Even if Cats and Dogs can prove that Yelp's sales representatives promised to remove bad reviews in exchange for ad purchases, it's not clear that such tactics violate California's business code, Goldman says.
On the other hand, he adds, judges might be sympathetic to the business owners who are suing. "The allegations are damning," he says. "I could see a court saying, 'Give me a legal theory and I will find a remedy.'"
A Yelp spokesperson denied the allegations and said the company will fight the lawsuit aggressively. "The allegations are demonstrably false, since many businesses that advertise on Yelp have both negative and positive reviews. These businesses realize that both kinds of feedback provide authenticity and value."