San Francisco filmmaker Kaylie Milliken says she never intended to be on the bad side of one the largest tech companies in the world. But, after she heard from a small business owner (her doctor) that Yelp seemed to be engaging in questionable business practices — removing positive reviews because the doctor hadn’t advertised with Yelp — she grew concerned. That concern grew into a forthcoming documentary, Billion Dollar Bully, which calls into question the business practices of the hugely popular review site.
"I had heard Yelp had aggressive salespeople, but when my doctor started casually telling me about her experiences with the company, I became shocked," says Milliken. "It sounded illegal."
"Every time we think we’re finished filming, we get more people calling in with stories to tell."
So after her appointment, she went home and began doing her own research — at that point, out of sheer curiosity. "I had used Yelp before, as a consumer, but I didn’t know much about it. In my research, I came across thousands of other business owners who had been complaining about Yelp."
Yelp has been called into question for its business practices in the past. According to some business owners, the company routinely manipulates reviews by reordering them so negative reviews appear at the top or removing positive mentions if a company doesn’t buy advertising. Those claims even led to a Federal Trade Commission investigation, though the FTC decided not to take any further action.
Yelp routinely points to the FTC’s decision to close its investigation as proof that the company isn’t doing anything illegal. But Milliken says the FTC investigation isn’t exactly proof of innocence.
"The FTC closed the case without taking further action," she says. "That doesn’t necessarily mean a case won’t be reopened eventually. The FTC has a very limited budget and the amount of cases they can bring against a company is small."
So Milliken attempted to get a handful of business owners on the record, hoping they could speak to their experiences with Yelp. "Ninety-five percent of the business owners declined an interview on camera," she says. "'We can’t take the retaliation from Yelp,' they said."
Eventually, though, she was able to interview several people who claimed to have negative experiences with Yelp. Some of them had to do with Yelp’s consumer alerts program, which the company has touted in the past. If a business owner offers a reward (a gift certificate, a free meal, etc.) in exchange for a five-star review, Yelp will add an alert to that business’ profile. But Milliken says that not all businesses with consumer alerts on their profile have done anything wrong.
"95 percent of the business owners declined an interview, saying 'We can’t take the retaliation from Yelp.'
"I interviewed one man who was basically spammed on his Yelp profile," she says. "Someone left 15, five-star reviews on his page that all said the same thing: 'The steak here is amazing. Ask for the secret sauce.'"
The problem? The business owner sells neither steak nor "secret sauce." A few days after the posts were published, he got slapped with a consumer alert. Milliken says the timing was especially odd.
"Yelp had been trying to sell him ads for weeks," she says. "Once he got the consumer alert, he contacted the ad rep and tried to reach Yelp headquarters, but they wouldn’t return any of his calls or emails." The business owner, says Milliken, was embarrassed and his business suffered as a result.
In other cases, Milliken says small businesses were being inundated with reviews that had little to do with their actual business. One bar in Boston, for instance, was reviewed negatively due to the lack of "hot chicks" that frequented it.
Yelp declined Milliken’s repeated requests for an interview. Once word got out about the documentary, though, Yelp began fighting back through the media. When Milliken went on CNBC to discuss her film, Yelp had its top public relations officer on the same program.
"They had it all set up," says Milliken. "They basically said, 'Kaylie is making the film because her husband has a business — he’s an attorney.' They said I left him a bunch of fake five star reviews and so I was bitter that my reviews were filtered out. They even released screenshots of my IP address."
The truth, she claims, is much more straightforward. "Before we were married, my husband did represent me in a legal matter. I was a legitimate client. I tried to leave him a review but it was filtered, so I left another one. Three altogether. They weren’t loaded yet, but I didn’t realize that, I just thought they were being deleted."
Milliken is currently in post-production on Billion Dollar Bully, and doesn’t have a release date set. Interestingly, she says that Yelp’s attempts to smear her have increased publicity for the documentary. "Every time we think we’re finished filming, we get more people calling in with stories to tell."
Asked whether she anticipated Yelp taking legal action against the doc, Milliken says she is more than prepared. "If they try to stifle my First Amendment rights, that would be hypocritical. Yelp likes to say, 'We are just the platform and we allow other people to express their opinions.' Well, in this case, I’m the platform."
The film’s Indie GoGo campaign launches next week. Above, an exclusive clip of Billion Dollar Bully, provided to Eater.
• All Yelp coverage [Eater]