NEW YORK--"They have that saying, 'don't shoot the messenger,' but the reason they say that is because the messenger gets shot," Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman told me over coffee on Tuesday morning. "So I have to take my shots."
He was talking, of course, about the PR fiasco that ensued when the Emeryville, Calif.-based East Bay Express newspaper published a lengthy expose on the business reviews site, alleging that it strong-armed businesses into paying to remove negative reviews. As a fairly regular Yelp user, I was repulsed by the possibility that its corporate practices were so sketchy. But Stoppelman, visiting from the company's home base of San Francisco, claims there's no truth to the allegations.
"There are business owners out there who don't think consumer reviews are good," said Stoppelman, who called the expose's accusations a "conspiracy theory" and likened them to similar tiffs that have arisen over Google's advertising program. "(They're) looking for confirmation that Yelp is this bad entity."
He wrote last week in a lengthy post on the official Yelp blog that the activity called out as "extortion" and likened to the Mafia in the East Bay Express can be attributed in part to the algorithm that Yelp developed to weed out suspicious reviews.
"When we set out to built Yelp, we said we didn't want to be this anonymous reviews site," Stoppelman said to CNET News on Tuesday. "When you go to Yelp and you search for a business, (because of the algorithm) you're seeing reviews that are reasonably trustworthy." Yelp will, for example, flag reviews that appear to be spam, may be overly positive reviews coming from a business itself or overly negative ones coming from its competitors, or are coming from new users with no track record or profile data.
The fallout wasn't quite as bad as it could have been, Stoppelman explained. Inquiries and complaints in the wake of the East Bay Express story were primarily restricted to the San Francisco Bay Area. His visit to New York was routine and already on the books, rather than a face-saving measure.
Stoppelman also said he didn't think the allegations could be connected to, say, a rogue Yelp employee independently engaged in shady tactics. "This doesn't come up, because we have all these processes in place," he said. "It would be caught in the account manager hand-off."
But he did admit to some error on Yelp's part in not explaining its technologies and practices thoroughly enough--from the review-filtering algorithm to the sponsored-listing offerings.
"We haven't made it obvious enough about what systems are in place for our users, especially business users," he acknowledged. "As these stories have sort of come out, we've been focusing on making sure that the messaging is very, very clear and tight."
Given the Web's gradual shift toward a culture of "transparency," any site with a behind-closed-doors algorithm is going to be eyed with suspicion. The spotlight has fallen on the technology that powers social news site Digg, especially when people learned how to game it. And last spring, Facebook pulled a little-known friend-search feature when tech gossip blogs called it a "stalker list."
And the Yelp algorithm does pull down some legitimate reviews, something that was pointed out in the East Bay Express story and which Stoppelman said will invariably happen given Yelp's system. "We're not going to get it right, and it's not perfect, because you're going to lose some legitimate content as you try to get rid of the spammy content." Reviews that are taken down through the algorithm aren't deleted, he said; they're not displayed on a business' review page but still appear on the reviewer's profile.
Yelp nevertheless welcomes feedback, Stoppelman said. It's possible, for example, to review Yelp on Yelp. Over 1,500 people have reviewed it, and he said he tries to respond to as many of the reviewers as possible.