The customer-review site Yelp is being charged with charging businesses to remove negative reviews about them. Bay Area businesses reported that Yelp is actually calling them, offering to remove the offending reviews for $299 a month. In some instances, positive reviews were replaced with negative ones when owners declined to subscribe. I don’t know why I’m so disappointed in the news that Yelp allows businesses to remove negative reviews for a fee. I’m not so innocent to believe in the absolute transparency of customer reviews, though I’d like to be able to – that’s what they’re there for, right? The fact that they’re actually calling businesses with the opportunity – some of the businesses contacted made it sound like Yelp was hounding them, calling weekly.

“Many business owners, like John, feel so threatened by Yelp's power to harm their business that they declined to be interviewed unless their identities were concealed,” writes the East Bay Expresses’ Kathleen Richards.

“Several business owners likened Yelp to the Mafia, and one said she feared its retaliation.”

It makes sense as a business model. A lot of sense, if it wasn’t so unethical, as it is in Yelp’s case: replacing old advertising models with public coercion, manipulating word of mouth and the expected transparency of public opinion instead of simply pitching a product.

I don’t use Yelp as often as I read customer reviews on Amazon, but I do rely on it for occasion, often in search of the perfect burrito. And really, a positive or negative review on Yelp isn’t the deciding factor on whether I give a place my business. I’ve read enough negative reviews of places I like, positive reviews of places I’ve loathed, to know that transparency will always be, can only be, shrouded in subjectivity.

But isn’t one of the tenets of sites like Yelp, which can only exist with user participation, the unfiltered views of normal people?

We now that you can get sued for leaving negative comments. The fact that one of the largest customer-recommendation sites is skewing its results towards the business is just as disheartening. Customer reviews can be infinitely more valuable than professional ones, and a hundred reviews more valuable than a few.

Sure, a site like Yelp would be problematic to monetize, but selling off its credibility is not worth the price. How many degrees of Chris Anderson is this from Gamespot possibly firing editor Jeff Gerstmann for writing a negative review of a game whose publisher had advertised heavily on its site?

Hopefully the hits customer reviews have been taking will stop. The thing fueling these sites – fueling customer reviews – is trust. Never before have we been able to tell so many others like us what a place or a product is like

By Mark Alvarez