Is Yelp Really the Billion Dollar Bully?

Yelp Billion Dollar Bully

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Businesses regularly complain of Yelp’s aggressive sales tactics and restrictive review policies. But, is Yelp really as bad as the “Billion Dollar Bully” documentary portrays?

Jason Brown of Review Fraud says no, and he has some eye-opening analysis to prove it. Jason joins us in this Office Hours webinar below to present his research and analysis of the businesses featured on “Billion Dollar Bully”. 

Jason is no Yelp apologist. He’s an outspoken critic of Yelp’s review policies and business practices. But Jason strongly recommends that everyone “look at the film critically; not all businesses are good, not all business owners are reputable, and not all pieces of investigative ‘journalism’ are credible.”

Yelp: Billion Dollar Bully, or Scapegoat for Bad Business?

I was excited about the release of the Yelp documentary Billion Dollar Bully. I have never bought a digital movie before. I knew I was not going to watch it just one time, and I was so right. My first time through was to take it all in, but I had mixed feelings on my first pass. It seems to barely scratch the surface of Yelp’s business practices and lacked real substance. I briefly went back and started to pick and choose a few scenes to rewatch and start my initial research. My second pass, I started looking at the businesses and the individuals featured in the documentary, and some red flags emerged.

Like, who is Amy Rose Lane?

Amy Rose Lane is listed as a freelance journalist and one of the sources for Billion Dollar Bully. She used to blog under the name Amy-Rose Lane until 2103. She then changed her name to Amica Graber before getting hired as a content and social media manager for a marketing company in San Diego. Before that, she had written for Buzzfeed and built her resume by compiling list blogs, such as “Which Fall TV Heroine Are You,” “10 Tea Cozies to Warm Your Cockles and Your Cuppa,” and “15 Jennifer Lawrence Moments To Make Snuggle Bubbles In Your Cold Dead Heart.” Upgrading herself to the title of freelance journalist apparently carried more weight with filmmakers and lent credibility as a more authoritative speaker, Jennifer Lawrence feel-good moments notwithstanding.

But it begs the question, why would this author of “Why Too Many Cooks Is Just Like Tinder,” who is a key source in this story arc, revert to a pseudonym she had ditched years earlier, and why would she do it when her big moment arrives in a documentary to chip away at billion dollar corporation Yelp?

Should a Business Be Able to Opt Out?

In rather alarming fashion so as to warn the capitalists in the world, Amy Lane raised the issue that business owners can’t opt out or remove themselves from Yelp. But, it’s clear that she doesn’t know how citations on the internet work. This is the same policy with Yellow Pages, Google, and other citation and review platforms. I contacted a colleague at the BBB and was advised that it has never heard of any business owner requesting to be removed; it also would not remove a business if there was a single complaint filed with that business.

As a Google My Business Product Expert, I see this question asked often. Typically, the businesses that want to opt out of reviews or want their business removed from Google have negative reviews and don’t want potential customers to be aware of these bad marks. I have seen cases in which businesses with horrible reviews go so far as to confess that their listing was in violation of Google’s TOS; Google then removed the business, thus removing the negative reviews associated with the listing. So far, Facebook is the only company that allows a business to delete its page or turn off reviews.

Vetted Businesses

In an online interview, filmmakers Kaylie Milliken and Mellissa Wood were asked about their vetting process for this documentary. The premise is that Yelp extorted businesses to do advertising and that, if they didn’t advertise, their positive reviews would go away, and their negative reviews would be pushed up. Wood stated they researched and vetted people and businesses that came forward to participate in the documentary. Milliken said she thinks, “the stories that we have are very solid.”

I started digging into the online reviews for these businesses. I would not have chosen them as subjects. Although I am not sure what the vetting process was, it is clear to me that the world of online reviews is completely foreign to Milliken and Wood.

The Australian Grill in Carlsbad, Calif., which is now closed, had an interesting way to deal with negative reviews. A few negative reviewers claimed that the owner harassed them or contacted their employer to have them fired. The documentary would have you believe that Ms. Stefanie Isacatus had to shut down over Yelp’s review filters without taking into account her actual business practices or the viability within the community or at a particular location. A similar complaint about The Australian Grill was posted on TripAdvisor.

The Australian Grill has a 3-star rating. But it turns out that the Australian Grill was the third restaurant to close, or fail, in that location. The Australian Grill has 21 TripAdvisor reviews, which it racked up in a two-year period; 11 reviews were 3-stars or lower. It appears that the Australian Grill did not last three years.

Even Ayesha Kiani of Chal Chilli in NYC became combative responding to negative Yelp reviews. Reviewers were trying to tell her that her food wasn’t good and needed to improve. That advice fell on deaf ears. Prior to closing Chal Chilli, it appears that Kiani posted positive Google and Yelp reviews for her restaurant. There are a lot of positive Yelp reviews by people with the last initial of K. Yelp only shows the last initial to protect the identity of the reviewer. The last negative review mentioned that they had violations with their last health inspection report. Mayor Michael Bloomberg passed a law in 2010 requiring restaurants to publicly display their letter grade. I wonder what the grade was and if, and when, it was publicly posted on her storefront?

The obvious question about Chal Chilli and The American Grill is did they close because they were extorted by Yelp or because, in a business that already has a large failure rate, their product or practices were poor?

What Was the Vetting Criteria?

I am not seeing evidence of a stringent vetting process. I noticed that several of the businesses covered in the documentary received negative reviews referencing rude staff. The Berkeley, Calif., business of R. Kassman, Purveyor of Fine Pianos, has 20 negative reviews referencing owner Russell Kassman as being “condescending.” Would it surprise you to know that R. Kassman has several suspicious positive Google reviews? It turns out five Google reviewers not only reviewed R. Kassman positively but also reviewed the same construction company in New Zealand, NZ Commercials & Industrial LTD. I also found reviewers who reviewed businesses covered on Review Fraud for having suspicious reviews. Kassman claims he started getting negative reviews “when we started towing vehicles.” I found two reviews referencing a threat to be towed. Both reviews referenced Kassman’s temperament too. One reviewer claimed to have been a customer of R. Kassman who decided to check out the sale at the business next door but was accosted by Kassman to move his car because he was no longer a customer once he left R. Kassman to visit the neighboring business.

Fido’s Retreat in Brooklyn has an issue with all negative reviews too. The owner, Gabriel Vitol replies in a combative tone and claims that several reviews are fake and/or purchased by a competitor. It’s odd that Vitol would say that the negative reviews are being purchased because it turns out that Fido’s Retreat has two years of suspicious positive Google reviews. Several of his reviewers reviewed the same businesses across multiple states across the U.S. Based on the theme in the negative Yelp reviews, it appears that Fido’s suffers from a service issue and not a Yelp problem.

I found similar complaint patterns with Dr. David H. C. King‘s medical practice in Los Gatos, Calif. Three of the five negative reviews — out of 20 total reviews — refer to the staff as rude. The negative review alleged in the documentary to be posted by a former employee is not found on King’s Yelp listing. Yelp has recently made it a violation for former employees to leave reviews. In the documentary, it was stated that medical businesses and doctors can’t reply to negative reviews; that is not true. However, they must tread lightly to not violate HIPPA laws. They are allowed to ask the reviewer to contact the office to discuss their issue privately.

Victims of Yelp?

Every business that was included in this documentary benefited from Yelp filtering or removing negative reviews. Nobody mentioned that fact. I did not find many of the business owners, based on the impression I got from watching the documentary and their response to reviewers, to be decent people at all. They don’t come across as victims but the instigators in their online woes. I did not find any suspicious reviews or manipulation with The Wheelhouse in Brooklyn, N.Y., Envescent LLC in Arlington, Va, or with Allied Outdoor Solutions in Houston.

Yelp is not perfect and could make some much-needed improvements. For example, one of the negative reviews posted for Dr. King’s Yelp listing should be removed for vulgarity. Yelp should allow business owners to request contact information for users leaving negative reviews. Yelp claims to be in the same boat as Verizon or AOL and should be protected from the information being posted on their platform. This idea is flimsy. It is Yelp’s platform, Yelp’s users, and Yelp’s content. Google complies with court orders and will supply information about users leaving reviews; I know this first-hand.

Billion Dollar Bully raised money on Kickstarter. I was excited to see this film see the light of day. Sadly, I was disappointed. I wasn’t the only one. The people who donated money should be disappointed as well. I doubt that they will dive into the businesses like I did, but will instead take it at face value. They will tout it as a moral victory. But they should look at the film critically; not all businesses are good, not all business owners are reputable, and not all pieces of investigative “journalism” are credible. Had the filmmakers taken a closer look at these business and other review platforms, I doubt that this movie would have been made. I’ve made that clear by looking at the reviews of those claiming extortion. For me, this was a massive failure and should be titled A Billion Dollar Scapegoat. No thumbs up, and I wish I could give it no stars.

Jason Brown
Jason Brown is a Platinum Google My Business Product Expert, a seasoned local SEO veteran, and a local search spam / fake review fighter. He writes for SEMRush and BrightLocal, speaks at many local search conferences, and has appeared on The Today Show, CNBC, and various ABC, CBC, and NBC news affiliates. Jason is also the co-host of the new Local Marketing Institute Podcast.