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Is Yelp the Mafia? Well, Maybe Not...

Today's Ad Age Summer Weekend Reader: A Close Look at the Controversial Online Review Site

By Published on . 1

In today's edition of the Ad Age Summer Weekend Reader -- a fresh post each Friday afternoon serving up a recent in-depth article about media and/or marketing (think of these as great train or beach reads) -- we're calling attention to a piece of reporting you may have overlooked because it popped up in an unexpected place: BuzzFeed. Yes, the site best known for listicles and LOLcats, and listicles of LOLcats, has been beefing up its journalistic operations under its well-regarded editor-in-chief Ben Smith (who made Ad Age's list of "Eight Great Digital Hires" in February).

"Is Yelp A Bully Or Just Misunderstood?," by BuzzFeed staff writer Sandra Allen, sheds light on why Yelp has such a terrible reputation with some business owners. BuzzFeed's summary:

The online reviewing behemoth is regularly accused of Mafia-style extortion by disgruntled business owners and the media. But even as Ivy League researchers debunk the conspiracy theories, the company's shadowy reputation remains intact. Why is it so hard to believe that Yelp might actually be fair?

The answer offered by Allen's fascinating piece isn't simple -- but it has a lot to do with Yelp's apparent unwillingness to be transparent about its system, which can cause both positive and negative reviews to mysteriously disappear, precariously shifting the ratings for individual merchants. In other words, what business owners who feel wronged see as an extortion racket (they're convinced that Yelp must be punishing them for not advertising) may be more about Yelp's arrogance and bureaucratic lack of responsiveness than anything intentionally sinister.

Allen's report runs just over 4,000 words and you can read it in full here. (Be sure to check out at least some of the 50-plus comments at the end from a variety of pro-Yelp and anti-Yelp readers.)

PRO TIP: Planning to read "Is Yelp A Bully Or Just Misunderstood?" on a mobile device this weekend when you might be out of cellular range? We're fond of the Pocket app, which will allow you to save the piece to read later at the beach, or wherever.

PREVIOUSLY in the Ad Age Summer Weekend Reader: "The Fascinating Story of How David Chase Turned HBO Into a Cultural Powerhouse."

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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