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Monday, May 23, 2022

Vet Looks to Collar Consumer Web Site

Greg Perrault, a Long Beach veterinarian suing consumer review Web site Yelp.com over what he calls a shakedown, doesn’t see himself as a crusader of the Internet age.

He was just shocked by what he describes as the company’s practice of offering to bury bad reviews in exchange for some advertising dollars. Since filing suit in February, he’s been receiving constant praise and offers to help in his battle.

“I’ve been called a hero, a champion, and I am none of the above,” Perrault said. “I don’t want to be thought of as that. But Yelp is asking me for money to protect me from things their Web site can do.”

Perrault knew that good reviews on Yelp could help bring new customers to his veterinary practice, Cats & Dogs Animal Hospital, while bad reviews might scare pet owners away.

So when Perrault got several phone calls in January from a Yelp salesman, he paid attention. But he was surprised by what he claims the salesman said: If Cats & Dogs bought advertisements on the Web site, ranging in cost from $300 to $1,000 a month, Yelp would bury bad reviews of the business far down on the site. The salesman also suggested Yelp might even be able to make some of the bad reviews disappear entirely.

Perrault said he wasn’t tempted by the offer. In fact, he was offended.

“It just didn’t sit right with me,” he said. “It felt like a shakedown.”

Last month, Perrault filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles, alleging that San Francisco-based Yelp essentially runs an extortion scheme. The lawsuit charges that the site offers to hide negative reviews of businesses if those businesses buy advertising. If the businesses don’t, the lawsuit implies that Yelp makes negative reviews more prominent. The lawsuit is seeking to have Yelp’s business practices banned. It also is asking the court to order Yelp to return all the money it has earned from businesses that felt intimidated into buying advertising.

Vince Sollitto, Yelp’s vice president for corporate communications, declined to discuss Perrault’s lawsuit specifically. But he said the company never offers to hide negative reviews for businesses that advertise, and to do so would render all the site’s reviews untrustworthy.

“The integrity of the consumer reviews on the site is the absolute foundation on which this company is built, and we would never do anything to jeopardize that trust,” Sollitto told the Business Journal. “Yelp neither removes nor suppresses negative reviews on behalf of advertisers, nor does our advertising staff offer to do so.”

Perrault’s lawsuit seems to have struck a chord among other small business owners who have been frustrated with Yelp for various reasons. The veterinarian said that since he filed suit, he’s been inundated with e-mails and phone calls from people congratulating him and asking if there is any way to help.

Perrault, a soft-spoken man who bought the Long Beach practice from another veterinarian five years ago, said he just wants Yelp to put a halt to what he sees as unscrupulous advertising practices.

Perrault versus Silicon Valley

The litigation pits Perrault’s modest veterinary business against one of Silicon Valley’s hottest companies.

Founded in 2004, Yelp has become the dominant player in a new category of Internet companies: ones that allow business customers to publish their own reviews of those businesses online. The site has more than 30 million users who have posted more than 9 million reviews. Yelp has more than 200 employees in offices across the world and has received $55 million in funding from investors.

In contrast, Perrault’s practice has eight employees, most of them medical technicians. They work out of a converted bungalow on Redondo Avenue in an eclectic, palm tree-lined neighborhood populated with Spanish-style buildings, a dental practice, a yoga studio and a hookah bar.

Cats & Dogs’ bungalow, surrounded by a white picket fence, sits in the shadows of two apartment buildings. Inside the waiting room, gleaming shelves are stocked full of dog treats and pet shampoo.

Perrault said 80 percent of his practice is treating cats and dogs, though he’s seen a fair share of more exotic animals in his waiting room, including geckos and Mandarin ratsnakes. He does everything from checkups to minor procedures, including spaying, neutering and orthopedic surgery.

Some online commentators have suggested Perrault’s lawsuit was filed in retaliation for a couple of negative reviews and have taken Yelp’s side. On Cats & Dogs’ Yelp page – where the business has an average rating of four out of five stars – one commentator named “Max M.” wrote, “I read about the Class Action Lawsuit … Yelp is a great service and helps to promote CUSTOMER IS KING!”

But Perrault said he welcomes negative reviews of his company. He said his staff often discusses negative reviews and, once they verify that an actual customer with a legitimate complaint wrote them, they take steps to fix the problem.

“This is like the suggestion box from the old days,” Perrault said. “You take all reviews to heart.”

Yelp has been accused of offering to trade negative reviews for advertising dollars in the past.

Last year, an article in the East Bay Express, a Bay Area alternative weekly, published a story titled “Yelp and the Business of Extortion, 2.0” that made similar allegations as Perrault: that the company offered to remove negative reviews of businesses if they advertised. If the businesses refused or if the advertising contract expired, Yelp would move bad reviews to the top of the business’s page, the article said.

First legal suit

Perrault’s lawsuit appears to be the first legal action taken against Yelp over the alleged advertising practices.

Sollitto at Yelp said advertising representatives have no control over the placement or publication of reviews. Instead, placement and publication is determined by a complex algorithm. He added that the company has safeguards in place that discourage salespeople from offering to drop negative reviews for advertisers.

“They have no incentive to do that, especially since at the end of the day, no one can deliver on that promise,” he said. “If you look at the thousands of businesses that are Yelp advertisers, you’ll see that virtually all of them have negative reviews on their pages. Many of these businesses appreciate that because having a mix of reviews gives their pages more authenticity.”

It’s not uncommon for media companies to run into perceived conflicts between their editorial and advertising departments.

Many media companies try to keep the two departments separate, but on occasion the line appears to blur.

“These church-and-state issues have been with us as long as media have been around,” said Andrew Frank, a vice president with research firm Gartner Inc. in New York. “The Internet is just a new environment for this.”

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