Diners savor brunch on a busy weekday at Mayfield Cafe in Palo Alto. Many Bay Area residents turn to Yelp in their search for the perfect dining experience. But the site’s relationship with small businesses is a complicated one at best, a strained one at worst. (Photo/Roseann Cima) Many small business owners and managers on the Peninsula complain that Yelp holds back business, and some have gone so far as to accuse the company of blackmail. This may come as a surprise to the large and growing number of consumers using the site. But Yelp’s efforts to educate small business owners about their practices have not eliminated the negative sentiment. The San Francisco-based company provides an online forum for customer feedback and reviews. It curates user-created content and has faced two class-action lawsuits in the past two years, both involving allegations of extortion. Small business owners claim Yelp coerces them into purchasing advertising by promoting negative reviews and hiding positive ones. Yelp denies this and claims this curation is “unbiased” and “neutral,” designed to protect the site from fraud. Federal courts dismissed both suits. The latest was dismissed in November, due to lack of evidence and because, under the Communications Decency Act, the court said Yelp isn’t liable either way. Some local small business owners say they are still considering additional legal action. Palo Alto restaurateur Satish Sandadi said he and the newly-formed Silicon Valley Indian Restaurants Association have discussed the possibility of pressing charges. “I think they blackmail us,” Sandadi said. He added he doesn’t mind that the site displays negative reviews of his restaurant. “We’ve always had mixed reviews on Yelp,” he said. He claims to be more angry about the site’s curation of the reviews: “The good reviews go the bad reviews stay.” He says he believes this is an effort to wreck his business and convince him to advertise with Yelp. “Go find a recent good review of my restaurant and watch it,” he asked. “In a few days it will have disappeared.” The phenomenon he refers to is the work of Yelp’s sometimes infamous, “review filter.” Unlike most websites where customers publicly review and rate services, Yelp “hides” a high percentage of the reviews that people post. If a review has been filtered, you can still see it on the poster’s profile, but you won’t be able to find it on the business’ page, nor will the review factor into the business’ “star count,” a summary rating of the reviews Yelp has not filtered. <a …..
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