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Originally published Thursday, January 16, 2014 at 4:41 PM

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Guest: What is Yelp? An impartial review site or an aggressive ad company?

Is Yelp an impartial free service to consumers or an aggressive advertising company touting the services of paying clients, asks guest columnist Terry Thomas.

Special to The Times

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YELP allows customers to rate and post reviews of local businesses with which they have dealt. By all appearances, Yelp is providing a valuable service to the public for free. These appearances are, however, misleading. Consumers deserve to know how it treats a small business like mine.

Shortly after our company began receiving positive reviews on Yelp, an energetic Yelp salesman called me, congratulating me on our company’s online reviews, and offering to help boost our Internet presence with one of several of Yelp’s marketing programs.

Once I was finally able to get him to answer my question about what the price would be, I was staggered: $8,400 per year for their midlevel program. I politely declined.

Soon after, I noticed that positive reviews began disappearing from our Yelp site. Upon investigating further, I discovered that these had been, in Yelp parlance, “filtered,” or buried deep within Yelp’s site and difficult to access. (“Filtered” reviews have now been renamed “not currently recommended” by Yelp).

Moreover, only positive reviews had been moved; the one or two less-than-positive reviews we had received had been moved up my company’s main page so they had far more prominence. In addition, most new positive reviews were going to the filtered no man’s land.

When I asked the Yelp salesman about this phenomenon, he said that Yelp has developed a sophisticated algorithm that purportedly can discern real from sham reviews, filtering out reviews suspected of being fake. In effect, Yelp claims to have developed a sort of cyber lie detector. I hope Yelp has shared this revolutionary technology with the Department of Homeland Security.

I expressed my skepticism, since the reviews of several of our customers were relegated to the filtered dustbin. I even tested Yelp’s system myself. Delighted with the service of one of our vendors, I posted a positive review of its work. Evidently, Yelp’s Oz-like algorithm adjudged me a fraud, and my review was filtered out. It has now mysteriously reappeared on the Yelp reviews for this business.

Although Yelp vehemently denies giving favorable review treatment to those who buy its services, and, with equal vehemence, denies punishing those who don’t by filtering positive reviews, I don’t buy it.

Neither do many other small-business owners, who, fed up with Yelp’s shady practices, have filed a class-action lawsuit against the company, Levitt v. Yelp. Although the case was dismissed by a federal district judge, it is currently awaiting an appellate decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Legions of anti-Yelp websites and articles have also sprung up, among them and a Facebook page called Businesses Against Yelp.

In November, the NBC news affiliate in Los Angeles reported on the case of a dentist whose negative reviews had been removed when he paid $350 to advertise with the company. Then, when he changed his mind and notified the company that he would no longer advertise with them, the negative reviews reappeared. There’s a word for that: extortion.

Yelp’s supposedly impartial posting of consumer reviews of small businesses, when combined with its aggressive efforts to sell marketing assistance to those same businesses, poses an irreconcilable conflict of interest.

Is Yelp an impartial free service to consumers or an aggressive advertising company touting the services of paying clients over those who choose not to pay?

It cannot be both.

Terry Thomas is a small-business owner in Mukilteo. He has taught about business ethics at Seattle University and the University of Washington.

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