Ok, I admit it - my very first review on Yelp was a knee-jerk response to other people dissing my absolute favorite local Mexican restaurant. They were criticizing it for using vegetables, calling the vegetables "cheap filler" in a burrito. So I wrote a glowing review about how pleased I was that they used "real" food instead of typical lard-and-cheese-and-meat American-Mexican fare. Because this glowing review was my ONLY review on Yelp, it got removed. Now, I can see an automated review system thinking that I might be a shill for the restaurant instead of a vegetarian patron with her hackles up. So I posted more reviews of different restaurants we'd been to in different cities (NYC, Las Vegas, Asheville NC), thinking that would get me out of the "sandbox". Nope - apparently I, as a user, had been blacklisted, and ALL of my reviews, whether good or bad, were blocked from public view. Finally, in frustration, I told Yelp to completely delete my account. I would simply start over, and I would prove to them what a good, innocent user I was!
So at the end of December, I started over. I re-posted my reviews over several days. I got immediate feedback for my seven little reviews in the form of 8 "useful" tags by other users, 1 "funny" tag, and 1 "cool" tag. Then, on January 10, I got a "compliment" from another Yelp user named Laura, one of the "You're Cool" canned compliments that users can send to each other on Yelp. She wrote simply, "Looks like you've been doing a little bit of traveling!" Had I known then what I know now, I would have taken the message very seriously and investigated exactly who Laura was. As it was, I thought, "Oh, a random message from a random user. Why is she bothering to message me? Oh, she has 1566 'friends' on Yelp, and 364 reviews. I don't really have the time nor the desire to get that involved with Yelp, so it would probably be better for me not to reply to someone who's so extremely into it. For me, it's a tool, it's not my life."
So all was fine for a month or so, and I became busy for a couple more months, and stopped checking my Yelp status regularly. Then, in April, I went back to update a review of a restaurant in Denver that I'd gone back to over the weekend, and I discovered that all of my reviews were again removed! Oh, sorry, they've changed their policy - my reviews are "filtered". So anyone can see them if they try hard enough, but they don't count towards a restaurant's rating and they don't show up with the other reviews.
So far, though, I still had no reason to be suspicious of Yelp, I was just mad and frustrated with their "automated algorithm" that flags reviews for removal. But I had seen the article about Yelp's changing its policies in order to "regain user trust", so between that (knowing that there was trust that needed to be regained) and wanting to know how not to get blocked, I began researching just what was going on.
That's when I found the "Yelp Is Evil" community. Now, a few disgruntled ex-users would be one thing, and I wouldn't take it very seriously. But these were allegations of extortion, of manipulation, of banning users without cause, of removing positive reviews of businesses in an effort to get the businesses to pay money. When reputable journalists are investigating, interviewing, and writing articles, and the stories are picked up by such giants as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, that definitely gets my attention. When more and more people come forward with the same claims, and even start a class-action lawsuit regarding it, that's enough smoke to warrant there's a fire.
After reading what Yelp was doing to businesses, I began to look at my own situation more closely. It turns out that Laura, who had sent me the brief message in January, is the "Community Manager for Yelp Denver". Is it a coincidence that she tried to make contact with me and shortly afterwards all of my reviews were blocked? I sent her a message asking if she had blocked my reviews, but like other employees of Yelp had claimed, she replied that she doesn't have that capability. However, it certainly fits with the pattern of what others have reported with regard to Yelp.
Honestly, I don't know if my traveling and my reviews of places scattered across the country raised red flags, or if my lack of response to what I assumed was an innocent message clinched my fate. But the bottom line is, I have no recourse. Yelp does what it does unilaterally. They are not a "community", because there is no discussion and there is no recourse for anyone unless money is involved. There is no way for businesses to respond to bad reviews (which works very well on TripAdvisor - I always appreciate seeing that a business is concerned enough to respond). There is no way for users to appeal the removal of their reviews or otherwise "prove" that theirs is a valid review. And apparently businesses can only improve the appearance of their reviews by paying Yelp lots of money (this is called extortion, not "advertising"), and there is now a class-action lawsuit in the works regarding this.
After reading Robert Dall's story of how Yelp banned him merely two days after his area's "Community Manager" encouraged him to post, I was intrigued by his mention of a website called www.urbanspoon.com. It is built on a model of transparency, rather than secrecy, allows "spoon backs" (as they call them), and has reviews from both inside and outside sources. They've also added Twitter feeds from restaurants. In short, it holds great promise for being a less biased, less manipulative, and more balanced and informed overall review with such a variety of sources.
While I don't yet have my "banned from Yelp" badge of honor, I wouldn't be surprised if this blog entry pushes me over the edge and earns me a permanent ban from Yelp.
Wall Street Journal: Small Businesses Join Lawsuit Against Yelp
East Bay Express: Yelp Extortion, Part I
East Bay Express: Yelp Extortion, Part II
Wall Street Journal: Yelp disputes East Bay Express Allegations
New York Times on East Bay Express Allegations
Robert Dall's article on being banned from Yelp
Why You Will Never Trust Yelp Again
A Slightly Exhaustive Analysis of Yelp's Public Defense to Extortion Accusations (aka Why Is The CEO Bothering With This Guy?)