Yelp and other online review sites can make or break a business. How are those reviews vetted? And how some of them could be bogus.
It's become the spot to go for reviews of restaurants, salons and more. Comments on Yelp.com can have a huge impact on the 20 million small businesses on the site. But can you really trust those reviews?
Yelp says it has a system in place to weed out the fakes, including what the company refers to as "phony good reviews." The site recently issued a warning about one Chicago business -- Azure Nails. Owner Hoang Bui fired back with his own allegations.
"Why would you pick on a small business like me?" Bui said. Bui invited ABC7's I-Team into his two downtown locations after Yelp issued a consumer alert badge on his stores.
Through Skype, Vince Sollitto, vice president of corporate communications at Yelp, said his team found several staged, positive reviews for Azure Nails.
"And in this case we found a large number of positive reviews were all coming from the same IP address and that's usually a sign of someone trying to gain the system and mislead consumers," Sollitto said.
When asked if he or his employees were writing reviews, Bui said "No. We have Wi-Fi here, and I asked my clients to write reviews right here in my business, and my clients use Wi-Fi here."
But Yelp says it has additional evidence, including a negative review of a rival salon, from that same IP address.
Bui has his own allegations. He said he believes Yelp has made negative reviews more visible because he refused to pay for advertising.
Bui is not part of it, but there is a class action lawsuit currently in a California court of appeals in which several businesses allege "misrepresentation and unlawful business practices" by Yelp. The suit states Yelp advertising salespeople told businesses that if they advertised, good reviews would show, and, if they didn't, then the bad reviews would.
Yelp has vehemently denied the claims.
"Advertisers receive no special treatment. All they receive is ads, and our recommendation software doesn't treat them any differently," Sollitto said.
Besides their internal investigations, Yelp says many questionable reviews - good and bad - are automatically filtered through software. It also points out that users have option to read all reviews in an unfiltered report.
"You take everything with a grain of salt because some reviewers are very critique-y," Reid Frick, Yelp user, said.
"If you go through the reviews and not just read like the first couple but actually take a thorough review of the reviews," Kesha Burch, Yelp user, said.
If you are reading any online reviews remember: The more information or pictures the reviewer includes in their profile, the more trustworthy they may be; and looking at someone's profile and see if they have a pattern of only writing negative or positive reviews.
Yelp has issued about 10 other badge alerts on Chicago area businesses since it started its policing program.