LOS ANGELES (CN) - A federal class action claims that Yelp!, a consumer review Web site, extorts businesses to buy advertising from it. Cats and Dogs Animal Hospital claims that after complaining about a posting on Yelp.com, the hospital "began receiving frequent, high-pressure calls from Yelp advertising employees, who promised to manipulate Cats and Dogs' Yelp.com listing page in exchange for Cats and Dogs purchasing an advertising subscription."
According to the complaint, "Yelp ... regularly manipulates the content on Yelp.com listing pages, despite Yelp's mantra of 'Real people. Real reviews.'
"One method Yelp uses to control content (and thereby raise or lower a business's rating), is to promise to remove a business's negative reviews or relocate them to the bottom of a listing page where fewer searchers will read them if the business agrees to purchase a costly monthly advertising subscription from Yelp. Yelp thus capitalizes on the presumed integrity of the Yelp.com ratings system to extort business owners to purchase advertising." (Parentheses in complaint.)
The animal hospital in Long Beach says it contacted Yelp in September 2009 to complaint that a negative review referred to a visit that occurred more than 18 months before the posting - 6 months beyond Yelp's stated 12-month policy. The hospital says that review was removed from the page, but a second defamatory review, allegedly from another user, appeared on the page within five days.
Veterinarian Gregory Perrault and hospital manager Javier Vargas say they then "began receiving frequent, high-pressure calls from Yelp advertising employees, who promised to manipulate Cats and Dogs' Yelp.com listing page in exchange for Cats and Dogs purchasing an advertising subscription."
One Yelp sales rep said that if Cats and Dogs advertised with Yelp for $300 a month for a year, Yelp would "hide negative reviews on the ... listing page, or place them lower on the listing page so Internet users 'won't see' them," according to the complaint.
The hospital claims that the sales rep promised that Yelp "would allow Cats and Dogs to decide the order that its reviews appear in on its Yelp.com listing page; and Cats and Dogs could choose its 'tagline,' i.e., the first few lines of a single review shown on every search result page in which Cats and Dogs appears."
A week after Perrault declined the offer, a negative review reappeared on the page, according to the complaint.
Cats and Dogs says the "advertising sales and employee reviewing practices" of Yelp are "immoral, unscrupulous, and offend public policy." It wants Yelp enjoined, plus restitution and damages for unfair competition.
Yelp is a Delaware corporation based in San Francisco.
Cats and Dogs Animal Hospital's lead counsel is Gregory Weston of San Diego.Follow @@jamierossCNS
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