Most people think of Yelp as an organic review site powered by the good-natured opinions of foodies and average Joes,but the four plaintiffs suing Yelp for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act are painting a different picture.
The plaintiffs claim Yelp Elite reviewers are unpaid employees and the site wouldn’t have 108 million visitors per month without them. They were treated as if they were on the Yelp payroll and pushed to post more often or face termination:
In order to maintain her “Elite” status, Ms. Sayers was often directed to write more reviews if in the Defendant’s opinion her production seemed to slack off… Ms. Sayers was fired from her position with no warning… and her reviews were removed from the website.
Yelp has a corporate base in San Francisco with paid employees to run the site. They also employ scouts who establish Yelp in new areas and community managers who create events for Yelp Elites to attend. Yelp Elites are unpaid reviewers, but often receive Yelp merchandise and food as compensation. Below the Elites are the average users who use the site casually to review new restaurants or sound off over bad experiences. These are the organic reviewers.
While the lawsuit by the elites focuses on unpaid wages — mostly how Yelp underwear isn’t compensation enough for writing hundreds of reviews — it actually reveals the pay-to-play side of Yelp. The Elites were instructed to write reviews for various scenarios and would have them deleted or be terminated if they didn’t follow the rules. There are three statements by the plaintiffs that raise some eyebrows:
Yelpers were required to write glowing reviews for locations of sponsored company events.
At the risk of losing their Elite status, attendees to Yelp events were required to write positive reviews of the location. For example, attending a Yelp writing seminar at a hotel would have to be followed by positive reviews of the meeting space and hotel staff.
This means that businesses could host an event and then watch their average rating shoot up to five stars.
Negative reviews about advertisers were deleted.
Two of the plaintiffs posted negative reviews for a location that advertised on Yelp. Both were deleted. One reviewer was told their post was based too much on personal experience, the other was told their post wasn’t personal enough.
“I left a negative review on Yelp regarding one of their advertisers. Not only was my review removed, but I also received an email cancelling my Yelp account and stating that I could no longer write reviews or get access to any that I had written.”
Yelp Elites were told to vary their star levels.
Another reviewer admits that her two-star review (in which she says the restaurant “sucks”) wasn’t really because she hated the restaurant – in fact, she thinks the proprietors have “a great thing going” – but because in order to keep her “Elite” status, she must write reviews with every level of Yelp ratings, including one-and two-star ratings
Elites couldn’t just crank out a ton of positive reviews. If that was the case, Yelp reviews would be hyper inflated and people would start to distrust them. Yelp elites were required to give a variety of reviews, just as long as the five-star ones went to paying advertisers and sponsors. By process of elimination, bad reviews went to companies that had no Yelp affiliation.
In September, New York lawmakers fined 19 companies for posting corrupt Yelp reviews. Businesses were bribing customers with gift cards and agencies were outsourcing positive reviews from Asia. Site visitors immediately became suspicious of Yelp reviews from mysterious sources but thought they could trust the Elites. Elite reviewers were supposed to be vetted by Yelp for their quality and trustworthiness of content.
This case reveals a different side of the story. If the plaintiffs win then Yelp looks like a company that abuses its loyal users and works them to further their agenda. They look like a company that decides which local businesses succeed and which ones fail. That decision is based entirely around who is paying them.