Class-Action Lawsuit Accuses Yelp of Extortion

By Smriti Rao | February 25, 2010 6:07 pm

yelp_logoYelp, the popular website that offers reviews of local businesses, has just been bitten by Cats and Dogs, a veterinary hospital that is accusing the site of extortion. In a class-action lawsuit filed in Los Angeles this week, the Long Beach pet hospital claims that Yelp tried to get it to cough up $300 a month for a 12-month advertising commitment in exchange for tweaking possible bad reviews of the clinic.

In its complaint, Cats and Dogs alleges that Yelp carried a negative review of the hospital written by a certain “Chris R” that the hospital’s owner, Gregory Perrault, viewed as false and defamatory. He asked Yelp to remove it because the review was based on an office visit that occurred 18 months before the post was written, and Yelp’s guidelines mandate that reviews must be posted within 12 months of an experience. The site took down Chris R’s review.

However another bad review, this time by “Kay K,” popped up five days later. According to Wired, Kay K wrote:

Dr. Perrault is the rudest vet I’ve ever been to . . . probably one of the rudest people I’ve had the displeasure of meeting. I agree with the previous reviews about making you feel like an unfit mom. My pup had been sick and I had a theory on what the problem may have been and he wouldn’t even entertain the idea, but instead, made me feel bad because my dog got sick. And, my poor dog was terrified of him! He made me feel like I was 2 inches tall and repeatedly looked down his nose at me. Oh, and OVER PRICED! OMG! Who does he think he is??? I did not feel welcomed by him nor his staff. I paid you for a service! No need to treat me so bad!

This is when Perrault alleges Yelp started pestering him; he says sales staff called and pressured him to consider an advertising package that would delete negative reviews, and would keep bad reviews from appearing in Google searches. Wired reports that when the doctor refused to bite, Chris R’s review reappeared on the site, along with a new one from Kay K that read in part:

I ran in to him in a neighborhood store right after he saw my poor sick dog at his clinic and he looked right at me, recognized me, rolled his eyes and looked away!!!! Seriously, someone needs to knock this guy down to the size he really is. He needs to drop his Napolean complex and be a professional. After my horrible experience with him, I took my sick dog to Bixby Animal Clinic and I have never had a more pleasant vet experience! Go there instead! My dog loved everyone there!

On being asked to remove this posting, Yelp declined, stating that they were not in a position to verify if all the reviews had been written by the same person. It added that the reviews reflected the personal opinion of the reviewers and that Yelp, adhering to its review guidelines, couldn’t do anything  about them. Perrault’s lawyer called this tactic “high-tech extortion.”

This is not the first time Yelp has found itself in hot water. Last year, the Oakland-based East Bay Express found six business owners who had received calls from Yelp sales reps promising to move or remove negative reviews in exchange for an advertising package.

The report said:

In another six instances, positive reviews disappeared — or negative ones appeared — after owners declined to advertise.

A former Yelp employee reportedly confirmed to the paper that several sales reps promised local businesses that bad reviews would be purged in exchange for advertising on the site. While this is legal, the report pointed out that it raised ethical questions about a site that prides itself on “Real People. Real Reviews.”

The San Francisco-based Web site had more than 26 million visitors in December 2009 and has published more than 9 million reviews.

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Image: Yelp

MORE ABOUT: online reviews, yelp
  • Michael

    Well, gang, it’s the internet for Pete’s sake! Pretty much like the wild west. I don’t give much credence to any reviews about anything on the net. ‘Angie’s List’ may have the same issues, but you have to pay a fee in order to post there, so there may be less extortion attempts.

    I’d sue also if Yelp tried this dispicable crap on my business. Maybe a class action suit is in order here.

    Having said that, the Italian’s court ruling on Youtube was just idiotic. Law and order is always way behind the technology curve…

  • Peeved

    Yelp removed at least seven good reviews because I don’t advertise with them. Of course they left the bad one and under “Yelp-sort,” it’s found at the top of the list! No surprise there! I can’t prove it but I know it’s hurting my business this year. Can you say Yelp-Mafia!?!

  • http://www.capecodhomeimprovement.com CCHI

    Michael is right, it’s tough not to see bias in online reviews. I don’t know if I would go as far as extortion, but I have seen sabotage attempts first hand and helped the business owner’s deal with the reputation management problems.

    I don’t hear much about Yelp around here yet. I think it’s off most consumer’s radar locally.

  • http://www.repairimagenow.com Isiah Lahmann

    The sooner you remove the complaints posted or listed about your business the easier it will be to restore your reputation, image and good name. . I used http://www.repairimagenow.com to help me restore my business’s reputation, image and good name on the internet.

  • Done with Yelp

    Getting “trusted” online reviews is tough. With places like Citysearch and Yelp not really proving credible feedback there aren’t many options. Try the new startup Wisper… http://www.wisper.com at least they provide a good customer – merchant collaboration.

  • really?

    I had a customer falsely accuse my repair shop of bad work, weeks after we serviced her car, she went to a new car dealership when her car had problems not related to the work we did, and she threatened a yelp.angies list/google campaign if we did not pay her for these unrelated repairs. She said her and her “huge” network (of other uptight women I assume)  would spend weeks defaming my hard earned quality business with negative reviews online. She said I could get off cheap if I paid her. So…I did.    Evil people suck.

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