Rigged reviews? Naperville restaurateur claims Yelp hurt business

NAPERVILLE, Ill. (WLS) -- If you rely on online reviews to choose your next dinner out, where to shop, or who to hire then you need to see what the ABC7 Consumer I-Team uncovered -- claims of rigged reviews.

Jason Knowles and the I-Team uncovered some reviews that look fake. One restaurant owner said some are real, but were buried.

"It's affecting me, it's affecting my staff, its affecting the livelihood of everybody, the reputation of the restaurant," said Michael Vai, owner of Vai's Italian in Naperville. He blames a 2-star Yelp rating on too many of his "good" reviews being bumped down to a shaded area called "not currently recommended."

"I'm sad about it, you know. All my hard work and for somebody to tell me 'oh yeah, we almost didn't come to your restaurant because you had bad Yelp reviews," he said.

Vai's digital marketing coordinator, Tiffany Berry, made a video presentation, outlining her issues with Yelp.

"Making us appear to be a 2-star restaurant that has only been reviewed four times... disheartening is one word we can use for it," Berry said.

The team at Vai's said it does not pay for Yelp advertising. However, they do purchase Yelp ads for their other restaurant, Fire and Wine, in Glen Ellyn. That restaurant, which has a 4.5 star rating, has fewer positive reviews in the "not recommended" section, the team said.

"I'd like Yelp to better express the metrics they're using to either push reviews down or show reviews," Berry said.

Yelp fought back, telling the I-Team that Vai's "...appears to be trying to gain as many reviews as possible, as quickly as possible, likely by asking for them rather than letting reviews accrue organically."

Yelp said that Fire and Wine "... has been receiving reviews for about 8 years, and its recommended review ratio is right in line with the average for all businesses across Yelp. This has nothing to do with advertiser status."

And that overall it has ".. repeatedly warned businesses against soliciting reviews, which its recommendation software may catch.

This Yelp video states, "our recommendation software is looking for opinions positive or negative that we feel are helpful and reliable to consumers."

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Jack Lombardi, an expert in online reviews, recommends addressing customer complaints before they go live online.

The company says is makes the software difficult to reverse engineer and "while it may be tough to decipher" how it works, "the rules are the same for every business and every review, regardless of whether or not they advertise with us."

Vai's said it encourages guests to leave online reviews without any incentives, and what should matter is that the reviews are truthful.

"I do think it is flawed to some level there are a lot of legitimate reviews that have been filtered that are worth reading," said Jack Lombardi of Chicago Website Design SEO Company.

Lombardi, an online reputation expert, said fake reviews are also a problem.

"There's many percentage of reviews that are online that are not true. They're just not; they were bought. Unfortunately the internet is the wild, wild west it really is," he said.

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How can consumers filter real reviews from fakes? Review expert Jack Lombardi has some tips.

The I-Team found several suspicious Google reviews connected to suspicious profiles. For example, three different reviewers overlapped and went to the same businesses all over the country. One reviewer is getting her dry cleaning done in Sherman Oaks, California, but she's also getting bats out of her house in Texas. Some of those reviewers raved about a phone repair shop called Tecnophone in Gage Park. Strangely, both reviewers go to this same phone repair shop in Chicago and they go to the same exact barbershop near London. Yet neither had a pattern of reviewing other Chicago area businesses. These reviewers also went to the same home repair services shop in Naples, Florida, while two of them went to the same dentist in Beverly Hills, California. Again, all three went to the phone repair shop in Chicago.

Maria Vazquez, the Manager at Tecnophone, said she would not trust that review.

"We do have a lot of local people who leave really good reviews. We even have them on our Facebook pages and everything," she added.

After the I-Team alerted Google, some of those positive Tecnophone reviews were removed but the user profiles remained.

Google said users can flag reviews for removal and "In May, we updated our automated and manual techniques to better identify Google accounts tied to scam efforts. We also updated our policies so that when we identify Google accounts tied to scams, we're better able to take action-whether that's removing the accounts from our platforms entirely or limiting their capabilities."

"The best way is if it lacks detail and the other way is if you go click on their profile and they're leaving reviews all over the world probably not a real account," Lombardi said.

At Vai's, there's now better news about their Yelp rating. They said after the I-Team's investigation, they're seeing fewer positive reviews filtered into that "not currently recommended" section and Vai's restaurant now has 4.5 stars overall.

"Bring the human element into this. The ma and pop's for the world, the me's of the world that got life savings invested in businesses ok," Vai said. "We're working hard to please customers because that's what we do."

Consumers may also want to read "not currently recommended reviews" on Yelp and make their own decisions. On all online review sites, check to see if reviewer profiles have a pattern of leaving thorough, local reviews.
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