First the chefs of a small Italian restaurant got mad at online review site Yelp. Instead of trying to get better reviews, they decided to take a different approach: get terrible ones.
The campaign helped Botte Bistro get a rating of one out of five stars, as more than 1,000 reviewers left tongue-in-cheek reviews panning the Richmond, Calif., eatery, said chef Michele Massimo. And it worked — business improved.
It was the latest protest among businesses who for years have complained that Yelp was extorting them by raising or dropping ratings depending on whether they advertised with the Internet's most popular review site.
Yelp has persistently denied those claims. Company spokesman Vince Sullitto said Yelp attracts millions of viewers and sells advertising to 80,000 businesses because of the site's credibility with consumers. Sullitto said many of Yelp's critics are businesses that have received bad reviews.
In September, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out a lawsuit filed by several businesses claiming Yelp extorted them by removing positive reviews after advertising sales pitches were turned down. The ruling could have been a definitive one for Yelp. Instead, it served to fuel the company's critics because the court said that, even if Yelp did manipulate reviews to penalize businesses, it would not constitute extortion.
Last year, a lawyer serving as a small-claims judge in San Diego likened Yelp to a "modern-day version of the Mafia going to stores and saying, 'You want to not be bothered? You want to not have incidents in your store? Pay us protection money.'"
Yelp says it uses an algorithm to weed out fake reviews submitted by business owners, relatives and friends that is often misunderstood. The automated removal programs accidentally erase many positive reviews written by legitimate customers. Yelp concedes that removing legitimate reviews is not ideal, but argues that's the price it pays for its credibility.
"We don't know who is leaving the reviews, and we don't think it's fair," said Massimo, the chef. "You are so vulnerable."
Massimo said he and his partner decided to launch their novel protest for a one-star rating after receiving several aggressive sales calls from Yelp that they perceived to be veiled threats.
"It was the best marketing idea I've ever had," Massimo said. "Thanks, Yelp."