Calif. veterinarian sues Yelp.com alleging extortion

Consumer review Web site rebuffs claims
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Feb 26, 2010
Long Beach, Calif. -- A California veterinarian is alleging extortion in a lawsuit filed on Feb. 24 against Yelp, an online review site for consumers. The DVM's lawsuit claims that Yelp's advertising sales representatives allegedly offered to hide bad reviews in exchange for an advertising contract.

“This is just about them doing the right thing. This is supposed to be a legitimate review site,” Dr. Greg Perrault, owner of Cats and Dogs Animal Hospital in Long Beach, Calif. tells DVM Newsmagazine. “I don’t want money. I want them to act ethically and stop what they are doing."

In a written statement to DVM Newsmagazine, Yelp refutes Perrault's allegations and the company plans to challenge claims made in the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court, Central District of California.

Perrault's problems with Yelp first began in September 2009. A negative review was posted on the site from a client who visited his hospital nearly two years prior. Yelp’s policy requires posting reviews within 12 months of a visit.

Since the review was so old, Perrault's practice asked the company to remove it. They complied. But within days, Perrault’s practice started receiving a high volume of sales calls from the company, he alleges, all urging him to begin advertising on the Web site. In return for advertising on the site, Perrault claims that Yelp representatives offered to hide negative reviews or list them lower on the Web site, and block negative comments picked up by Internet search engines. Each time he declined Yelp’s advertising offer, Perrault contends negative reviews would appear more prominently on his hospital’s page listing. Some old reviews even reappeared under new names, he says.

Vince Sollitto, of Yelp.com, responded in a written statement, "Yelp provides a valuable service to millions of consumers and businesses precisely because of its trusted content. The allegations are false and demonstrably so: Yelp treats review content equally for advertisers and non-advertisers alike and does not offer to remove negative reviews for advertisers. A quick look at any of our thousands of advertisers' pages will show both positive and negative reviews; most businesses understand that this demonstrates authenticity to consumers. “Advertisers buy advertising and nothing more," Sollitto counters. "They do not have the ability to control the reviews on their page, and Yelp does not remove negative reviews from advertisers' pages or offer to do so in exchange for advertising. This credibility of review content is what makes Yelp useful and why 29 million people used Yelp to find a great local business last month."

Still, the lawsuit cites a number of other complaints from other businesses criticizing Yelp for similar business practices.

“I felt unless I pay this money, I’ll be continue to be bombarded by bad reviews,” Perrault says. “You’ve got no recourse as a business owner. It’s just a very bizarre time we live in.” Perrault’s complaint seeks a class-action declaration, reimbursement for attorney’s fees and court costs. In addition, the complaint asks that Yelp be forced to stop the practices mentioned in the complaint and ordered to repay the revenue it earned through the use of these business practices.