A Portland restaurant owner says Yelp has manipulated reviews of his restaurant after he declined to buy ads, an accusation the online recommendation site has faced before and vigorously denies, saying reviews are ranked by a computer algorithm.

Vinland owner David Levi said he was prompted to speak out Monday after he noticed that Yelp’s local community manager, Steff Deschenes, downgraded her personal review of his restaurant from four stars to three stars a year after posting the review. But Deschenes said she made the change months ago, after reflecting on her experience at Vinland.

“We’ve had our frustrations with Yelp hiding a disproportionate number of our five-star reviews. To see the local representative make this downgrade so long after visiting is disturbing,” Levi wrote.

On the Yelp website, “recommended reviews” come up immediately, and a link at the bottom of the page leads to “not recommended reviews.” Levi said Vinland’s positive reviews were moved to this section, or “hidden,” after he declined to buy ads or donate to local Yelp events.

In an email exchange, Deschenes told Levi that she isn’t affiliated with the sales department at Yelp and writes “honest reviews” as part of her effort to build the Portland Yelp community: “As a Yelp user, I have the right to change and/or update any of the reviews I’ve written about a business if my opinion about that business changes for whatever reason. I realized that because I personally did not enjoy my main course at your restaurant, I never felt inspired to return.”

Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 7.11.29 AM

Reached by phone, Deschenes said she would call back, but then did not, and she did not respond to further calls. In an email, she referred questions to a company spokeswoman, who said Deschenes did nothing wrong. As a community manager, she is expected to write reviews and is welcome to change those reviews, the spokeswoman said.


As for the issue of reviews being “recommended” or “not recommended,” Yelp officials said the site does not manipulate reviews based on ad buys.

“Conspiracy theorists have had their day in court on more than one occasion, but courts have repeatedly dismissed their lawsuits claiming that ratings and reviews on Yelp are somehow tied to advertising,” the company’s website says. “There’s no amount of money a business can pay to manipulate their reviews or rating, and Yelp doesn’t skew things in favor of advertisers or against businesses that don’t.”

But if Yelp wanted to it could, according to a 2014 ruling by a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The panel upheld the dismissal of several lawsuits against Yelp alleging extortion over advertising. The court found that the plaintiffs didn’t prove Yelp directly threatened the businesses with economic harm for not buying ads. The court also noted that, on a claim that it moved negative reviews up – which is what Levi alleges – the court found Yelp had the right to do that if it wished.

“The business owners may deem the posting or order of user reviews as a threat of economic harm, but it is not unlawful for Yelp to post and sequence the reviews,” the panel wrote. “As Yelp has the right to charge for legitimate advertising services, the threat of economic harm that Yelp leveraged is, at most, hard bargaining.”

Other Portland restaurateurs said they don’t have any experiences or opinions about reviews being moved, but questioned how seriously to take the Yelp experience in general.


“I wouldn’t put that past them, but – who cares (if reviews are manipulated)? Just make the food and people come and eat it and like it,” said Jason Loring, who owns Slab and Nosh Kitchen Bar. Loring said he doesn’t buy advertising with Yelp or participate in local Yelp events.

“We’ve been harassed a lot (by Yelp) to do ads … (but) it’s not a company that’s for the small-business owner,” he said.

A bigger issue, said Loring and restaurant owner Harding Lee Smith, is the quality and validity of the reviews in general. Smith owns The Front Room Restaurant & Bar, The Corner Room Italian Kitchen & Bar, The Grill Room & Bar and Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room.

“I take the Yelp reviews with a grain of salt,” Smith said Monday, noting that he buys Yelp advertising and hosts local events. “Personally, I would never use it (as a customer.)”

Levi said he understands that idea.

“It’s always good to try to not care too much,” he said. “But it’s just undeniable that it’s a boon to your business when you have good reviews come in.”


Vinland has a 4.5 rating out of 5 on Yelp.

Levi said he is “taking this matter really seriously” because he thinks it’s unfair, particularly because Deschenes changed her review.

“Clearly there were some shenanigans going on,” he said. “We have such a vibrant food community here, in Portland, in Maine. People care very deeply about food. When they are trying to make an informed decision, there are legitimate sources and less legitimate sources. Yelp is not a legitimate source.”

Yelp spokeswoman Rachel Walker said criticism of the review process persists even though the company has explained the process.

“We do hear from businesses now and again, that they just don’t like being on Yelp,” Walker said. “Unfortunately that’s just kind of the age we live in.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.