Lauren Brenner is a former New York stock broker who now runs the New York fitness studio Pure Power Boot Camp (PPBC).
A couple of years ago, two of Brenner’s employees opened a rival fitness studio 15 blocks away. The new studio didn’t just imitate PPBC’s military-style workouts, the employees were also found guilty of stealing PPBC’s customer records, business plan information, and other documents. In 2011, they were ordered by a U.S. judge to pay PPBC $US246,000.
While Brenner was duking it out in court, negative reviews started showing up PPBC’s Yelp page. Then, even more strangely, Brenner says her business’s name on Yelp page was altered to say “puke Power Boot camp.”
Yelp is the hugely popular website used by millions of consumers to rate customer service and find recommendations for everything from restaurants to doctors.
Brenner was convinced the reviews were fake, particularly because the names used on the reviews didn’t match any of her customer’s names, she told Business Insider.
Yelp uses a computer algorithm to sniff out fake reviews, good or bad. If the algorithm flags the review as fishy, those reviews get filtered, tucked out of immediate sight, and are not included in its five-star rating system, Yelp spokesperson Kristen Whisenand says.
In this case, Brenner claims her reviews were not flagged.
Brenner says she contacted Yelp to explain the legal situation, and ask that they remove the negative reviews. She also had her lawyer send multiple letters to Yelp. (Business Insider reviewed the emails and letters sent to Yelp.)
But, according to Brenner, the negative reviews stayed and more appeared.
Yelp’s Whisenand says that calling and emailing the company is not the best way to get it to look at questionable reviews. Business owners can click on a little red flag in the bottom-right corner of every review. Flag it and Yelp will manually read the review. If they determine the review violates the Yelp’s terms of service, they will delete it. This includes using hate language or “biased” reviews such as favourable reviews written by employees, or unfavorable reviews written by competitors.
In Pure Power’s case, nine flagged reviews were at some point removed, Whisenand says, though some of the reviews that Brenner questioned remained and Brenner continued to have her lawyer contact Yelp about them.
Then someone told Brenner that her company name on Yelp had been changed to “puke Power Boot camp.” (See screen shot.)
Brenner claims she tried to log into her account to change it back and was locked out.
She contacted Yelp and shortly after that, a Yelp advertising rep contacted her and asked if she wanted to advertise, Brenner says. She refused and asked him to correct her company’s name. He said he was locked out too but he would have someone call her back, according to Brenner.
No one called, says Brenner.
For four days Brenner says she reached out to Yelp about the name and then called the police, the FBI cybercrime division, and reporter Charles Bennett at the New York Post. Bennett says she finally contacted Yelp’s PR team and within a few hours, her name was fixed.
Yelp tells Business Insider that her name was changed to “puke” by a system error:
We’re disappointed that there was an error within our user ops team software causing that content entry mix up and we fixed it as soon as we were able to verify the error.
Anyone can suggest changes to Yelp’s business listings, like names or addresses, Whisenand says.
omeone had tried to change this company’s name to “Purepowerbootcamp,” all one word. The change was reviewed and rejected as inaccurate. But instead of keeping the correct name, Yelp then changed the name to a previously rejected name, submitted by someone years ago: “puke Power Boot Camp,” Whisenand explained to us. Whisenand didn’t share information on who submitted these names to Yelp.
Whisenand also tells us:
Our review recommendation engine does not take into account a business’s advertising status. Sales people cannot remove or manipulate reviews on behalf of advertisers and [they] do not make that claim.
This incident happened in January and since then Brenner has been vigilant about monitoring Yelp, flagging negative reviews and even responding to some of them. But she’s still furious.
This is an extreme story. It isn’t typical that a business owner who’s been battling it out with Yelp over negative reviews discovers its name changed to something offensive. However, as of last year, 685 small business owners have filed complaints with the FTC against Yelp. (The validity of those complaints has not been verified.) Similar accusations led to a flurry of lawsuits, most of which were ultimately dismissed. Yelp told us:
Suits and allegations to the contrary have been dismissed and debunked but conspiracy theories are easy promulgated by folks who disagree with our efforts to serve consumers and local businesses.
Whisenand believes that most business owners’ issues with Yelp are due to confusion about the way Yelp works. She said some business owners are trying to game Yelp by asking customers to write positive reviews or even by paying illicit positive-review-writing services. When Yelp doesn’t post those positive reviews but does post the negative ones, merchants think it’s because they are not Yelp advertisers, she said.
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