In the restaurant world, Yelp is notorious for manipulating the order and appearance of its own listings. It’s a practice that’s certainly controversial — and debatably legal. And now someone is looking to examine it on film. Through her Billion Dollar Bully documentary, filmmaker Kaylie Milliken will explore how Yelp allegedly takes advantage of small-business owners. This is Milliken’s first-ever documentary, but it’s already receiving quite a bit of attention, especially ahead of its fall release date. Grub called her up to discuss her inspiration, what it actually means for Yelp to “manage reviews,” and how the company is fighting back.
What inspired you to make this documentary?
I used to use Yelp a lot, and then I was at my physician’s office one day — and this is a physician that I have immense respect for — and she began to tell me about her experiences with Yelp. The more she told me, the more shocked I became. I didn’t want to believe a lot of what she told me, because I found Yelp to be so useful. I thought, If what she’s saying is true, then that’s not a site that I should be using at all. I went home and began to research it, and the more I dug, the more I found. Her story was not unique at all. I started to ask friends about advertising, filtered reviews … and they didn’t know anything. My associate producer and I had been thinking about various documentaries for a while. The more I spoke with people, I realized it was a story that needed to get told.
Yes! I think it’s clear to people that there are issues — like the Yelp user who comments and rates a restaurant based on the bathroom alone — but few realize how much Yelp is encouraging unfair practices. How is Yelp trying to corner these businesses?
Businesses feel helpless because once you are put on Yelp, you do not have the option to come off of Yelp. And a business is often not the one to put itself up there. Then, the business starts getting phone calls from salespeople at Yelp, offering to help them spread the word and advertise. Even if a business has customers who are happy, and those happy customers choose to leave reviews, those good reviews aren’t necessarily going to get seen. If the happy customer doesn’t use Yelp extremely often as a reviewer, that review is going to get buried. No one is going to see it.
Often, there will be a negative review written, and the same method should work: If you don’t leave reviews regularly, the review won’t be seen. But that is not the case. The negative review does get seen, and the business can’t get itself off Yelp. Yelp says it’s the public’s right to know about this business. Then, the business starts getting phone calls from people at Yelp who say, “Hey, we can help you manage your reviews.” That’s the key word: “manage.” A lot of businesses hear that as Yelp will help them get rid of their bad reviews. They sign up under that false assumption.
I’m under the impression that Yelp staffers are trained to word things in ways that don’t actually make sense to business owners. For example: “ad impressions.” Many business owners don’t actually understand what “ad impressions” are, and they don’t understand the contracts they’re signing.
And I’ve heard that if business owners say they don’t want Yelp to “manage their reviews,” they’re flooded with negative ones. Is that true?
Yes — that’s what tons of businesses say happen. If they tell Yelp they don’t want to be involved, or pay, then all of the sudden, their bad reviews start popping up and their good reviews get filtered away. And Yelp constantly says, “It’s our algorithm!” It also seems to come at extremely convenient timing. Business owners speak with a Yelp employee, they decline their services, and then their good reviews are gone.
Have you tried to interview anyone at Yelp?
Very early on, I had the idea for a documentary, but I was taking on a different angle. I contacted someone at Yelp, and they agreed to speak with me at that time. But they also said that I was not allowed to use that interview in the documentary itself. Then, it took on a different form, and I contacted them again to ask them for their side of the story. I’ll reach out to them again at the end of making the film, but I’m not that hopeful. Once all the fund-raising is done, we’ll be traveling quite a bit for the interviews — business owners, as well as legal experts.
What do you think is the biggest common misconception about Yelp?
I would probably say relying on what you see in the star ratings as to whether you think it’s a decent business or not. There are so many businesses with two and half stars, and they aren’t a two-and-half-star business. If a lot of people look up their favorite business on Yelp, they would probably be pretty surprised by the negative comments. So many people continue to rely on that star rating anyway. It’s hard not to, because if you do a Google search, the first site that pops up is Yelp. It leaves a horrible first impression.
Also: This isn’t just impacting restaurants. It affects so many types of businesses. Even doctors! And doctors can’t reply to negative reviews, because they’re bound by HIPAA laws to keep things confidential.
Has Yelp attempted to silence you?
They’ve tried to do some character assassination. I did a CNBC interview, and a few hours before, they told me they were bringing on someone from Yelp. It was the VP of communications. That’s interesting, because they sent out a pretty big person to argue with me: I run a grassroots organization, and this is my first film.
The Yelp person said I was bitter and brought up the fact that I used three different accounts on Yelp, and left my husband — an attorney — reviews. Which is true! I did that five or six years ago. First of all, I don’t think I’m alone in doing that — a lot of people want to help when someone is starting a new business. When he represented me in a legal matter, I left a legitimate review, and the next day, it was gone. I thought, My account must not work. It must have been the first review I ever left. I made another account and I left another review, and it was gone. And I did it again. They were all getting filtered out. I do think there should be a filter in place, because you don’t want things like that to happen.
But then Yelp released a press statement that said I had a conflict of interest because I have a history of trying to mislead consumers. Not accurate! Yelp also released a bunch of screenshots showing my three usernames, as well as my husband’s business. What got to me is that there was no reason to release my husband’s information. It goes to show that Yelp is very concerned about what will come out in this documentary. Otherwise, they wouldn’t bother with me — someone who hasn’t released anything on my own before. I read this quote somewhere: “If you’re going to shoot the messenger, it’s probably because the message is true.” That’s a good analogy.