The relationship between Yelp and restaurants has been problematic since the review site’s launch in 2004. But below the surface lurks another issue: whether Yelp purposefully or unintentionally filtered out five-star reviews. These uncounted reviews can have a significant impact on a restaurant’s rating, and some restaurants are looking for answers.
Case in point: PBJ.LA. After opening in August, the fast-casual, Adam Fleischman-backed peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich shop at Grand Central Market shows only 14 reviews on their Yelp page. Any user can scroll to the very bottom and find 82 “non-recommended” reviews, which are not factored into an overall rating. Of these hidden 82 Yelp reviews for PBJ.LA, 80 are four or five stars, which don’t count toward the restaurant’s overall rating.
This raises a hefty question: what exactly are Yelp’s criteria for filtering out those “non-recommended” reviews? This is a tricky part for any type of crowd-sourced reviews. And Yelp must fairly determine which are viable by filtering out the chronic complainers, any deceitful loading of positive/negative reviews, the integrity of the reviewer, or reviews that would inaccurately depict a restaurant. Yelp claims that 75% of reviews are used for any business, and a software program assists in the process. But do the numbers add up?
Eater spoke with PBJ.LA co-founder, Jimmy Franklin about the issue and he alleges that just before speaking with a Yelp rep about advertising, their review tanked from four-and-a-half star average to the three-star range. But this was only the beginning. Here’s Franklin on what happened after they agreed to pay for ad placement on Yelp:
“I thought that was odd, (that Yelp) pulled all these five star reviews. But then they called to get us to advertise for up to $1800 per month. We asked about the rating drop, and were told that they will go back up, and it’s the computer algorithm. It seems too much of a coincidence that it was at 4.5 and hours before (the Yelp sales call) it’s down to 3. She kept pushing the sales pitch, and this continued with a dozen conversations about why our good ratings aren’t posting.”
Franklin says that PBJ.LA pays $1,000 per month to advertise on Yelp, and made some recommendations to help with the rating drop. Under the recommendation of Yelp’s sales, PBJ.LA asked users to check-in, then post new reviews. The next step was to invite one-star reviewers to return to reconsider their original assessment. Franklin claims that all these efforts resulted in five star Yelp reviews. Yet the majority of these new reviews are still placed in the “non-recommended” section, and Franklin is not happy about it.
Says Franklin, “We felt like we were being put over a barrel. We don’t know if it is corrupt, but it feels corrupt. Our investors are paying $1,000 a month to advertise that we’re average.”
Eater reached out to Yelp for a comment, and has yet to hear back. The Yelp site includes this explanation for “non-recommended” reviews:
“We use automated software to recommend the reviews we think will be the most helpful to the Yelp community based primarily on quality, reliability and the reviewer’s activity on Yelp. Advertisers get no special treatment. The reviews below didn’t make the cut and are therefore not factored into this business's overall star rating.”
Update 6:22 p.m.: A Yelp spokesperson offered the following statement in response to this article:
While we can't say exactly why a review is recommended or not, it is against our policy for businesses to solicit or ask for reviews on Yelp as that leads to bias. Our recommendation software is designed to recognize these reviews, and it's likely that solicited reviews would be not recommended. Additionally, reviews for advertisers and non-advertisers are treated exactly the same on Yelp. There's no amount of money you can pay to manipulate reviews on Yelp.