SANTA MONICA BLVD — A Santa Monica therapist is blaming business review website Yelp.com for a drastic drop in the number of referrals she’s received over the last seven months.

Roxy DeCou, who specializes in young adults dealing with depression and anxiety, claims that after she declined to advertise with the San Francisco-based company negative reviews started popping up on her business’ profile on Yelp, including one written by a man who was never a patient but had been dumped by her daughter several years ago.

“People can say anything they want and there’s nothing I can do about it,” DeCou said as she waited for a patient at her modest office on Santa Monica Boulevard. “Now my reputation is in the toilet.”

DeCou’s claims are not new. Yelp, which hosts some 25 million reviews of restaurants and other businesses and lures close to 66 million visitors a month, has been accused of using unfair business practices, with employees allegedly demanding monthly payments from businesses — in the guise of advertising contracts — in exchange for removing or modifying negative reviews appearing on the website.

A class action lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles two years ago on behalf of a veterinary hospital in Long Beach, who asked Yelp to remove what it called a “false and defamatory review” from its site. The suit claims Yelp refused and demanded roughly $300 per month in exchange for Yelp hiding or removing the negative review.

A federal judge threw out the lawsuit, a decision that is being appealed.

Officials from Yelp deny the allegations, saying there is no amount of money that would entice Yelp employees to manipulate reviews.

“Claims to the contrary have been repeatedly thrown out of federal court,” said Kristen Whisenand, senior public relations specialist at Yelp. “Users can check out any advertiser’s page on Yelp to see for themselves that our review filter works the same for advertisers and non-advertisers alike.”

Yelp, which relies heavily on advertising revenue, uses an automated review filter to protect consumers and merchants from bogus or malicious reviews, and the company, which went public last week at $15 a share, removed a feature that allowed businesses that advertised to place their favorite review above others.

That said, officials with the company admit the filtering system isn’t perfect.

“Some legitimate content might get filtered and some illegitimate content might make it through, but our product team is always working to improve it,” Whisenand said.

Merchants who believe a post may have violated Yelp’s terms of service can flag it and notify the company’s customer support team, which would review the complaint and determine if the post is in violation. If so, the team will remove if and notify the business.

Whisenand would not discuss how the review filter works, however, she said that sometimes more positive reviews are affected because “Yelp users write more positive reviews in the first place.”

“In other cases, it affects positive reviews that appear to have been solicited by business owners, a practice which may seem like a good way to generate more reviews, but which tends to create an unintentional bias,” she said.

That’s part of the reason why some choose not to use Yelp, but instead rely on recommendations from friends or family, or the Better Business Bureau.

Yelp’s explanation brings no comfort to DeCou. While her daughter’s former flame has since removed his negative review (after some pressuring from DeCou and her daughter), she is still dealing with the aftermath. Just last year she was getting roughly 10 to 15 calls a month from potential clients, some of whom saw positive reviews on Yelp. She’s lucky now if she gets one.

“Yelp helped me tremendously at first, but after they asked me to advertise, it all changed,” she said. “It can be very helpful, but in my case it has destroyed my business.”

Now DeCou, who has been in practice for 25 years, is trying to build her business back up the old-fashioned way, by word of mouth. But this time around, there’s no Internet connection necessary.

kevinh@www.smdp.com

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