The owner of a Vancouver electrolysis chain is accusing Yelp, the customer review website, of filtering out positive reviews about her company — skewing the rating system against her — for no good reason.

"There’s a huge market that we are missing because of their filter system," said Jennifer Desloges, owner of Jade Electrolysis, who has been in business for 23 years.

Desloges signed a contract with Yelp — for $350 a month — to enhance the page where her business is listed on the site. She also wanted to boost the reviews, so Desloges asked her customers to post genuine comments. Glowing, five-star reviews were put up by 17 of her customers.

"These are people that really believe that coming to us has changed their lives — and they really want to help the next person to find us," said Desloges.

After that, Jade Electrolysis gained a five-star rating on Yelp, and Desloges said the hits to her site increased. Then, suddenly, the positive reviews disappeared from her listing's main page, and the rating dropped again — to 2½ stars.

Yelp had removed all but one of the good reviews and placed them elsewhere in the site, in a less prominent section for "filtered reviews".

"To be filtered is kind of a slap in the face to my customers," said Desloges.

Pecking order for reviewers

Yelp told Desloges the good reviews were taken off her main page by an electronic system  that uses an algorithm to sort reviews. She was told that's not because the reviews weren't genuine, but most likely because her customers aren't regular Yelp users.

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"If you are a user and you are writing reviews and it’s getting filtered out — keep writing reviews," a Yelp customer service person told Desloges in a phone conversation she recorded. "Keep using the site — if you find it helpful — and you might find yourself getting unfiltered."

"It just seems unethical," said Desloges. "They want more people on their site. So if you review only once then you get filtered. If you review twice, chances are you are going to get filtered. If you review many times, you are not going to get filtered."

Desloges says she’s losing potential clients, who see her low rating and go elsewhere.

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Jade Electrolysis has several positive reviews from clients that were filtered out of the Yelp site. (CBC)

"Some people don’t look past that…people probably don’t come to us because of that," said Desloges.

"I care about my business. This is huge to me…but it’s more about the end user — the person who couldn’t find us who needs us."

Desloges called Yelp several times, asking how to get the reviews unfiltered.

"We don’t have that information," the customer rep told her. "When it comes to the filter and when it comes to the information in there – there is nothing we can do to change that side of it."

"I thought, ‘How can you not know? This is your page this is your website. How can you not know how the filter works?’…They just gave me the runaround."

Other complaints

On several U.S. sites, CBC News found numerous complaints about Yelp, purportedly from business owners also complaining their good reviews were filtered out.

In California, several business owners have tried to sue Yelp, accusing the company of practicing extortion, by telling them if they paid more to advertise on the site their poor ratings would improve.

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Seventeen of the comments about the business were sent to another section for filtered reviews. (CBC)

The class action suit was thrown out, because freedom-of-expression laws protect sites from being sued for user content and the judge saw no proof of the alleged extortion.

Yelp told CBC News it filters out "drive by reviews" to give more prominence to reviews from "trusted", frequent users.

"The filter is not perfect," said spokesperson Stephanie Ichinose. "We discourage business owners from soliciting reviews [as Desroges did] because it generates what we are talking about here."

She said the filter’s primary function is to screen out rigged reviews, from people with vested interests in the businesses.

'Not a pin up board'

"We are not a pin up board – where you drive by and put something up and you leave. We are a community."  

A communications expert at Simon Fraser University said consumers should realize sites like Yelp manipulate content to boost their own bottom line, so the reviews are not purely "grassroots".

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Yelp said it filters out 'drive-by reviewers' who post only once because that may mean they have a vested interest in the business. (CBC)

"They are there for generating and making money," said Peter Chow-White. "The way that they do that is either help businesses promote themselves through advertising…but they also draw on users...in order to make their sites look more popular so they can charge more for that kind of service."

If complaints escalate, sites like Yelp could face more challenges, Chow-White predicted,

"There’s not much in terms of policy in place to deal with this right now," he said. "It has to be found out somehow that these practices are creating unequal business practices. And if governments find that out and if people lobby them enough then perhaps they will look into it."

Desloges said it’s not the first time she’s been stung by reviews on the web. A few years ago, a competitor — posing as a customer — posted a negative blog about Jade Electrolysis. When Desloges discovered who was behind it, the competitor apologized in writing and removed the post.

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Simon Fraser University communications expert Peter Chow-White said sites like Yelp want to find ways to get more users in order to boost their bottom line. (CBC)

She now suspects one of the negative reviews on Yelp could also be from a competitor, because she said the complaint doesn’t match up with any customer she remembers.  

"There maybe needs to be some rules on the net that aren’t there now," said Desloges. "I actually am taking three hours of training every week just to learn social media. It’s blowing my mind it’s so intense."

"And it’s not easy to manoeuvre around that whole thing."