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As Yelp Looks to Stop Extorting Money from Business Owners, will Google Follow Suit?

Yelp has been the target of lawsuits recently.  For example, according to this WSJ report:

Nine small businesses have joined a lawsuit accusing local business review start-up Yelp Inc. of extortion and fraudulent business practices.

The newest plaintiffs were officially added Tuesday in an amended complaint filed by two law firms…. The new plaintiffs include a Chicago bakery, a Washington, D.C., restaurant and a California furniture store, among others.

The original plaintiff in the putative class action suit, a veterinary hospital in Long Beach, Calif., said it had asked Yelp to remove a negative consumer review that violated Yelp’s site guidelines. According to the complaint, San Francisco-based Yelp initially removed the review but it reappeared and Yelp later declined to remove it and other negative reviews. The suit alleges that Yelp’s sales representatives repeatedly contacted the hospital offering to hide any negative reviews if it bought advertising from Yelp.

In the amended complaint, the owner of Chicago’s Bleeding Heart Bakery alleged that Yelp offered in exchange for a paid sponsorship to push any bad reviews to the end of the bakery’s listings on Yelp’s site. The bakery owner alleged that one of Yelp’s sales representatives said they would personally remove reviews identified by the owner as “bogus.”

“Yelp’s practices are extortionate and especially harmful to small businesses, such as our clients, who are particularly vulnerable to reviews posted on the site,” said Jared H. Beck, co-managing partner of Beck & Lee, referring to the original plaintiff and the nine new ones.

Yelp denied any wrongdoing and said that it reviewed the amended complaint and still believes the suit is without merit. “The allegations stem from confusion over how our review filter works to protect consumers from fake, or shill, reviews and businesses from malicious reviews from competitors,” said Vince Sollitto, Yelp’s vice president of communications.

At the bottom of the controversy is the fact that Yelp employs a cryptic algorithms that automatically hides reviews it deems less reliable. Yelp claims that presenting users with a filtered list of reviews give users better, more trustworthy reviews. Unfortunately, Yelp also aggressively sells businesses services that allegedly allow businesses to hide negative reviews and even to write fake good reviews.  These practices – lumped in the guise providing users better reviews – have gotten yelp in a lot of heat as of late.

It looks like that Yelp is finally ready to make peace. While it still maintains a cryptic algorithm for filtering reviews and selling “advertising solutions” to businesses, Yelp is now allowing customers to view a list of unfiltered reviews, if they so desire.

I applaud Yelp for taking a step in the right direction.  But now that Yelp is finally ready to reform, what about Google?

Google???  Yes Google – the company that recently left China and has avowed to do no evil.

Google, like Yelp, too collects and presents user reviews.  Google, like Yelp, markets their user reviews as authentic and neutral. And while Google is not currently the target of lawsuit for its user reviews, it is carrying out business practices very reminiscent of Yelp of old.

As users of Google know, Google collects its users from a variety of sources.  Some of the reviews are collected by Google itself.  If you go to a business found on Google map, for example, you should be able to click on reviews and leave a review for that business. Other reviews are collected from selected 3rd party sources, such as www.vitals.com, www.healthgrades.com, City Search, amongst others.

I’ve always wondered why it is that Google only source reviews from certain sources on the Internet, but not all.  Does money play a role? Given that many of these 3rd party sources are sponsor-driven, how authentic are the reviews there?  Worse, since Google only source reviews from select sources, does Google actually charge 3rd parties for the privilege of displaying their reviews in Google?

My concerns turn out not to be too fanciful.

One of my friends recently alerted me to a company called Demand Force. Demand Force is, on first view, a mere doctor – patient communication system.  Focusing on the dental market, Demand Force charges each dentist $300-400 per month for the use of its services.  Its services allows dentists to more efficiently communicate with patients to set up appointments, confirm appointments, solicit feedback, etc.). However things get more interesting as one digs deeper.

Part of Demand Force’s services allow dentists to solicit user reviews from patients.  After patients leave a feedback on Demand Force, the dentist has a chance to reply and answer any concerns OR to remove any reviews the doctor deems “inaccurate.” That’s right!  Dentists who are paying customers of Demand Force can selectively remove bad reviews from Demand Force and have consistently obtained 5 (or very close to 5 star) ratings on Demand Force’s platform.

So what does this all have to do with Google?  Well, it appears that Demand Force has partnered with Google to provide Google so-called “certified” reviews.  A casual search of dentists in the San Francisco area will show reveal several dentists who have signed up with Demand Force. (They all have over a hundred reviews and average close to a 5 star rating.)

The problem is that this whole scenario reeks  of the same blackmail scenarios that have given rise to the Yelp lawsuit. If you are a paying customer of a Google partner like Demand Force, you are given the power to message user reviews to your liking.  If you are not, you are on your own.

Now that Yelp is finally allowing customers the option to see unfiltered lists of user reviews, will Google do the same?

Will Google allow users to see reviews from all review sources instead of just a select few?  Will Google demand from partners like Demand Force a set of unfiltered review result instead of just a set of reviews that its partners and their paying customers have collaborated to manufacture?

Will a lawsuit be necessary to purade Google to do no evil?

  1. r v
    May 16th, 2010 at 18:36 | #1

    There are similar problems with other review/rating sites. There was even some controversies with a law firm rating site in recent months.

    I do not know if this is necessarily extortion. I would more closely associate this type of phenomena to “cyber bullying”, except in these websites’ case, anyone can pitching and say nasty untruthful things about businesses, instead of individuals.

    Website operators, facing take down requests, making money from such online speech or removal of them is rather unscrupulous.

    However, the decision they face is still very difficult. Understandably, if all information posted have to be reviewed, it would hinder the flow of information, and make it very costly for the websites to operate.

    But money based good ratings defeat the purpose of the information in the first place.

    Good rumors or bad rumors, the internet merely drove them into the open. (but it is not like bad untrue rumors were not around before the internet).

    Obviously, there is no perfect review/rating system for businesses. It’s all opinions. Websites that profit from rating based advertisement are only asking for lawsuits. They might as well host opinion pages about people and wait for cyber bullying lawsuits.

    (But it is sad to see these bad side of new technologies.)

  2. Shelly
    January 25th, 2011 at 20:29 | #2

    This article was poorly researched. Reviews are not submitted to Google and taken down at each Demandforce customer’s whim. Read the review policy on the website before you create false discussions: http://www.demandforce.com/reviewpolicy.php

  3. January 25th, 2011 at 20:57 | #3

    @Shelly,

    Demandforce has a special relationship with Google that allows their reviews to be published … despite policy that allows their clients to easily remove bad reviews (e.g. merely announcing that a patient is no longer with the practice is grounds for removal – wow what a sure way to remove bad reviews…). Demandforce and Google are in bed. Of the $300 monthly fee clients pay, some $250 go to Google…

    I also often see clients get 12-15 bad reviews but upon switching to demandforce, get 99% 5 star ratings…

    Before criticizing some article is poorly researched, it beehoves you to read carefully before writing a poorly thoughout comment.

    A couple of other places that discuss the issues brought up here.

    http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Places/thread?tid=6e0ebe92ba8e242b&hl=en

    http://blumenthals.com/blog/2009/12/11/google-maps-and-reviews-a-readers-perspective/

    http://smallbusinessshift.com/articles/demand-force-dominates-google-local-dental-reviews/

    Remember this post is written against Google. I have no problem with DemandForce partnering up with Google for business. I have problem with Google partnering up for private gain behind a false cloak of objectivity and transparency (about which you can also read here).

  4. r v
    January 26th, 2011 at 15:55 | #4

    I have a feeling/prediction that Google has grown too big too quickly, and now it doesn’t know what to do with its near monopolistic powers, nor how to deal with the potential criticisms that come naturally with EVERY one of its decisions.

    It’s a natural law that when you are powerful, every decision you make will inevitably upset someone.

    In that sense, Google’s motto of “do no evil” will quickly become meaningless.

    *What happens when you grow too big? You might unwittingly step on small guys and crush them to death.

  5. tom
    August 16th, 2011 at 14:56 | #5

    ok really? Google in bed with Demandforce, really, seriously? Do you truly believe that? DemandForce claims a special relationship with Google and Google just removed their ability to get a star rating. Demanforce lost their Star ratings, let me say it again, Demandforce lost their star ratings.
    Google’s CEO says “Beware of anyone who claims to have a special relationship with Google”. Why because Google has more cash than the U.S. right now and they don’t need partners, they’ll create their own stuff.

  6. August 16th, 2011 at 15:17 | #6

    Google is also attempting to buy Motorola’s mobile patent portfolio. If successful, Google would become a dominant company in mobile devices.

  7. May 3rd, 2012 at 04:45 | #7

    Your competition unfortunately is bent in slamming you
    with false content reports and reviews for which you have no
    recourse in an attempt to unrank your SEO.
    Yes, their is nothing you can do about it.
    Yelp, it seems, has found a solution to capitalize on it.
    Demand force recognizes that Google will republish
    review pages in its ranking.
    The old addage, “bad news travels faster than good”
    has now gained some monatery value online with the
    Server side/3rd party crowd.
    I removed my “places” because I have an established buisness and niw its a target.

  1. May 11th, 2012 at 16:41 | #1
  2. October 16th, 2014 at 13:06 | #2
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