In what must come as welcome news to the dentist who shot Cecil the lion, embattled rival Angie’s List, and rude waitstaff everywhere, a new documentary is alleging that crowdsourcing-review site Yelp engages in mafia-like practices. Billion Dollar Bully is being produced by Hollywood PR veteran Michael Levine, and levels accusations that Yelp is actively extorting business owners by threatening their reputations.
Specifically, the claims allege that Yelp is contacting owners and inquiring if they want help “managing” their online reputations. As the trailer reveals, individuals assert that almost immediately after declining the service, they discovered existing relevant positive reviews had disappeared, and new negative reviews emerged. These claims are presented in conjunction with statements made by Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppleman confirming there are Yelp employees composing reviews. The trailer suggests that employee-authored reviews and unstable review profiles are occurring via the “filtered reviews” section of Yelp, which is made up of reviews directly curated by Yelp.
For its part, Yelp is countering that Billion Dollar Bully director Kaylie Milliken is biased, and that her documentary is the result of a conflict of interest. Yelp alleges that Milliken unsuccessfully attempted to submit fake five-star reviews for her attorney—a lawyer she later married. Milliken acknowledges that she did submit the reviews, but that the reviews were submitted long before the two were married. Milliken argues that her skepticism in the service began much later when she looked into a doctor’s claims that Yelp was manipulating reviews of her practice.
While it’s unclear whether Milliken has a true conflict of interest, it appears that many of the film’s backers have a problem with Yelp. The director raised $150,000 through crowdfunding, with the remainder of the film’s $500,000 budget provided by business owners who are withholding their identities for fear of reprisal from Yelp.
If these allegations are scaring you away from reviews made by anonymous internet posters, The A.V. Club recommends that you trust a consummate professional critic, and the only expert experienced enough to review “life itself:” Forrest MacNeil.