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Local business owners dish on Yelp website

Christopher Rosacker
Staff Writer

When Mario Fantoni opened Trattoria Milano on Bank Street in Grass Valley in March, he was surprised at how quickly his Italian restaurant appeared on Yelp, a crowd-sourced business review website.

“For every 10 positive reviews, we would only get one negative,” Fantoni boasts. “Then one day, suddenly, at the end of April, I looked again, and I noticed that the 10 positive reviews had disappeared. We were shocked.”

In their place came a spat of negative reviews that seemed locked to Trattoria Milano’s page, so Fantoni contacted Yelp. He said it was only when he said he was interested in advertising that he could get anybody from the San Francisco-based company to call him back.

Fantoni never wanted to advertise and says he never will, because he believes Yelp is in the business of extortion — filtering reviews on its sites to frame public perception.

And Fantoni isn’t alone. Yelp has long been the object of businesses’ ire regarding its mysterious review selection practices.

In 2009, the East Bay Express’ story titled “Yelp and the Business of Extortion 2.0” won in-depth reporting awards for its coverage of allegations that the company offered to hide negative reviews if businesses advertised.

“We make it very clear that advertising has no effect on the review filter and that there is no amount of money a business can pay to manipulate their reviews on Yelp,” said spokeswoman Rachel Walker in an email to The Union. “It is even written into the advertising contract.”

Yet the allegations continue.

Lorrie Flores, co-owner of Pete’s Pizza in Grass Valley and Nevada City, is one critic.

“I just feel their filtering system is unfair. Yelp deletes (reviews). They have some process, which is very esoteric,” Flores said. “You can have five wonderful reviews and suddenly, they aren’t there or they never make it there. And the reason I know that is because I have had positive four- and five-star reviews disappear.”

Of the eight reviews displayed on Trattoria Milano’s Yelp page Sunday, five were negative and three were positive.

However, at the bottom of the page is a small, gray-text hyperlink that says “28 filtered” in parenthesis. Of those 28 filtered reviews, only one is a less than four-star positive review out of a possible five stars.

“It is getting out all the positives. I know some customers who said they were frustrated they were being filtered,” Fantoni said.

“They come; they are happy; they place a review. And then, two or three days later, it disappears.”

Out of Pete’s Pizza’s Grass Valley location’s 35 displayed advertisements, 15 were three-star reviews or less. Out of the 13 filtered, five fall into that same category — the rest are positive.

Yelp has an automated review algorithm designed to protect consumers and business owners from fake or malicious reviews, Walker noted. If Yelp’s algorithm wasn’t difficult to understand, businesses could game the system to make their business look better or make a competitor’s look worse.

“It applies the same set of rules equally across the board for everyone, nonadvertisers and advertisers alike,” Walker said.

“Because we do not disclose exactly how our quality algorithm works, there will always be some mystery around it,” she added.

“It’s not a perfect system, but we think, given the task at hand, it does a pretty good job.”

Fantoni disagrees. In the first couple of months of business, he estimates that 30 percent of his customers were from out of town. Since the negative reviews appeared on his website, that percentage has dropped to less than 5 percent of his business, he said.

“I know it affected people not from the community,” Fantoni said. “We are a tourism town.”

Several other restaurant owners The Union spoke to for this story expressed frustrations over Yelp, though not specifically about their filtering.

“My experience is it’s good and bad,” said Matthew Margulies, owner of Nevada City’s Matteo’s Public restaurant.

“When somebody has a bad experience, they are more apt to put (a review) on there than if someone has a good experience,” he said.

“Human nature tells upset people to go tell everybody.”

Both Fantoni and Flores said they briefly considered advertising to see if it solved the problem.

“I was getting heavy pressure from the salesperson to advertise,” Flores said.

“I declined, and my feeling is that if you do advertise, you probably get a little bit better deal … But they would never say that. They are very careful not to say that.”

To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email crosacker@theunion.com or call 530-477-4236.

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