FOURTH STREET — An intriguing phone call came one day to Roll House Sushi last spring, sparking some interest in its owner about advertising opportunities on a business review Web site that was quickly growing in popularity.

“You have a lot of hits on your page and the reviews are great,” restaurant owner Charlie Paratunya recalled hearing from a Yelp sales associate. “People love you.”

The salesperson reportedly proceeded to ask if there was any interest in advertising opportunities, to which Paratunya responded that he would have to wait because his budget did not permit it, asking that Yelp check back later.

When the associate phoned again months later, Paratunya, after checking with his business partners, declined the offer, saying it wasn’t the right time.

By then Paratunya had checked the Roll House Sushi page on Yelp several times, pleased with the number of reviews — about 20 — that had given him five out of a possible five stars. But after the second conversation with the Yelp sales associate, Paratunya said he began noticing that the positive reviews were getting deleted and the negative ones were getting pushed to the top.

Roll House Sushi, along with several local businesses, are among a growing group of merchants making claims that the San Francisco-based Internet company employs questionable sales tactics, including allegations that the associates strong-arm merchants into advertising. Such claims prompted Yelp co-founder and CEO Jeremy Stoppelman into posting an entry on his blog earlier this year listing the top nine myths about the company, much of which covers the advertising concerns.

The blog entry has since been featured on Yelp’s site.

“The allegations are false and at the core of what Yelp is about is connecting consumers with great businesses,” said Stephanie Ichinose, the company spokeswoman. “The way we do it is safeguarding the integrity of reviews you find on a business profile page and making sure that the reviews there represent a true kind of customer experience for that business.”

Among the myths that Yelp attempts to dispel is that a nonadvertising business’ positive reviews are deleted. Stoppelman in his post said that the reviews might have been deleted for several reasons, including through Yelp’s automated review filter, which keeps an eye out for suspicious activity, including “anonymous rants and raves you see on other sites.”

The review could have also been deleted by the writer or been flagged by another user for violating the company’s guidelines.

“We’re vigilant in making sure that (the review) is accurate a reflection as possible and not necessarily what the business owner and their extended group of family and friends may think of them,” Ichinose said.

Yelp has also addressed the accusation that sales associates manipulates reviews for possible advertisers, including removing negative write ups or threatening to delete positive ones if spurned by a business.

Sales people do not have access to a system that can manage reviews and are held to an agreement with the company that they will not write any while employed by Yelp. Once a business signs on, they are assigned to an account manager who confirms that the reviews are separate from advertising, the company said.

Paying advertisers do have the option of promoting a favorite review at the top of their Yelp page but cannot reorder the other posts, according to the company.

Ichinose also said that the company does have paid reviewers whenever it goes into a new market. Yelp most recently launched in the United Kingdom and had a handful of marketing assistants, identified with a “scout badge” who uploaded several reviews and posted photos of businesses.

But some businesses continue to question Yelp’s sales practices, including a local merchant who said they have been contacted by the company 15 times over the past year, much of which has taken place over the last few weeks.

The business owner, who asked that they remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation from Yelp, said they were never concerned with advertising on the site because of a plethora of positive reviews.

The merchant was originally contacted about a year ago and declined to advertise. There was no communication until about several weeks ago when a sales associate contacted the business again.

After declining to advertise, the business owner checked the Yelp page again and noticed that at least 10 positive reviews had disappeared while a few negative ones had been posted.

“(The experiences) seemed to be not true because the customers were talking about things that happened that no one in the store remembered,” the business owner, who is now considering advertising, said.

They estimate that at least 20 positive reviews have been deleted from the site since the conversation with Yelp about three weeks ago.

But Danny Leclair, the owner of hair salon Studio DNA on Broadway and a Yelp advertiser, said he has never seen the bad reviews suppressed or disappear.

“What I do see is if someone goes on and writes a review, good or bad, and doesn’t write it again and doesn’t put a picture up, they will eventually disappear,” he said. “But if a reviewer goes on and writes a few reviews and remains an active member, their review I can tell stays at the exact same place in date and order on my site.”

He said that the salon received a bad review from the roommate of a stylist who decided to get back by posting a “scathing” write-up. Leclair contacted Yelp about removing the post, pointing out that the roommate had never been in the salon, learning that the company could do nothing about the review.

The post eventually disappeared since the user remained inactive on Yelp, he said.

The Yelp issue has been receiving press lately from several media outlets, including the New York Times, NPR and the San Jose Mercury News, all reporting similar allegations against the Bay Area company.

In a recent column on the San Jose Mercury News, writer Chris O’Brien said the Yelp controversy is a result of a digital culture clash, noting that less than half of small businesses have a Web site and that the Internet has for the most part been a nonfactor in their operations, leading to frustration when dealing with customer reviews from new media.

The company has experienced rapid growth since it launched in October 2004. The site had 7.5 million unique visitors in January 2008. In the past 30 days, it has had 20 million unique visitors.

“There are businesses that are going to be pleased with the conversation consumers are having and others that aren’t as happy about the reviews that are popping up on the site,” Ichinose said. “As Yelp reviews have gained in influence, business owners are now starting to take notice and really take a hard look at their business profile page and what customers are saying.”

Paratunya, who said that his site has gone from 20 reviews with five stars to about 18 since he was contacted by Yelp, still has questions about the company’s practices, dissatisfied with the excuse he received that some of the posts were not legitimate. One deleted entry was posted by a user who had written only one review and had no registered friends, Paratunya said.

He said that the sales associate had promised to put a favorite review on top and the bad ones on the bottom, but never threatened to push a negative one up if the restaurant refused to advertise.

“Yelp is a good company and has a good concept,” he said. “They have high potential but they’re just shady.

“It could be just like YouTube (in terms of success) if they could do it right.”

melodyh@smdp.com

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