, the popular website that offers reviews of local businesses, has just been bitten by Cats and Dogs, a veterinary hospital that is accusing the site of extortion. In a class-action lawsuit filed in Los Angeles this week, the Long Beach pet hospital claims that Yelp tried to get it to cough up $300 a month for a 12-month advertising commitment in exchange for tweaking possible bad reviews of the clinic. In its complaint, Cats and Dogs alleges that Yelp carried a negative review of the hospital written by a certain “Chris R” that the hospital's owner, Gregory Perrault, viewed as false and defamatory. He asked Yelp to remove it because the review was based on an office visit that occurred 18 months before the post was written, and Yelp's guidelines mandate that reviews must be posted within 12 months of an experience. The site took down Chris R's review. However another bad review, this time by "Kay K," popped up five days later. According to Wired, Kay K wrote:
Dr. Perrault is the rudest vet I’ve ever been to . . . probably one of the rudest people I’ve had the displeasure of meeting. I agree with the previous reviews about making you feel like an unfit mom. My pup had been sick and I had a theory on what the problem may have been and he wouldn’t even entertain the idea, but instead, made me feel bad because my dog got sick. And, my poor dog was terrified of him! He made me feel like I was 2 inches tall and repeatedly looked down his nose at me. Oh, and OVER PRICED! OMG! Who does he think he is??? I did not feel welcomed by him nor his staff. I paid you for a service! No need to treat me so bad!
This is when Perrault alleges Yelp started pestering him; he says sales staff called and pressured him to consider an advertising package that would delete negative reviews, and would keep bad reviews from appearing in Google searches. Wired reports that when the doctor refused to bite, Chris R's review reappeared on the site, along with a new one from Kay K that read in part:
I ran in to him in a neighborhood store right after he saw my poor sick dog at his clinic and he looked right at me, recognized me, rolled his eyes and looked away!!!! Seriously, someone needs to knock this guy down to the size he really is. He needs to drop his Napolean complex and be a professional. After my horrible experience with him, I took my sick dog to Bixby Animal Clinic and I have never had a more pleasant vet experience! Go there instead! My dog loved everyone there!
On being asked to remove this posting, Yelp declined, stating that they were not in a position to verify if all the reviews had been written by the same person. It added that the reviews reflected the personal opinion of the reviewers and that Yelp, adhering to its review guidelines, couldn't do anything about them. Perrault's lawyer called this tactic "high-tech extortion." This is not the first time Yelp has found itself in hot water. Last year, the Oakland-based East Bay Express found six business owners who had received calls from Yelp sales reps promising to move or remove negative reviews in exchange for an advertising package. The report said:
In another six instances, positive reviews disappeared — or negative ones appeared — after owners declined to advertise.
A former Yelp employee reportedly confirmed to the paper that several sales reps promised local businesses that bad reviews would be purged in exchange for advertising on the site. While this is legal, the report pointed out that it raised ethical questions about a site that prides itself on "Real People. Real Reviews." The San Francisco-based Web site had more than 26 million visitors in December 2009 and has published more than 9 million reviews. Related Content: 80beats: Some M.D.s Try to Amputate Online Reviews 80beats: Should Advertisers Be Allowed to Track Your Bedroom Habits? 80beats: How Did “Soupnazi” Allegedly Steal 130 Million Credit Card Numbers? 80beats: Researchers Guess Social Security Numbers From Public DataImage: Yelp