When we use Yelp, does it make us unwitting co-conspirators in a colossal blackmail scheme? That’s the implication at the heart of Billion Dollar Bully, an upcoming documentary about the company’s practices. The film is unlikely to hinder the growth of the online juggernaut, but it may start an uncomfortable conversation about where everyone is going to dinner.
Filmmaker Kaylie Milliken, who raised over $90,000 on Kickstarter, presents Yelp as one big criminal enterprise, forcing business to shell out ad dollars to keep them from being consumed by negative reviews. The big question being asked is whether or not the company’s filtered review policy is tantamount to asking for protection money. Without seeing the algorithm, it’s hard to know for sure, but there are definitely members of the service industry that feel that way.
“It’s a language,” says bistro owner Davide Cerretini. “And it’s a language that has been invented in Sicily around 1930.”
For its part, Yelp has categorically denied the documentary’s accusations, saying the director is pursuing a personal vendetta. “The director has a conflict of interest, as she has a history of trying to mislead consumers on Yelp,” the company told The Hollywood Reporter. “To be clear, there has never been any amount of money a business can pay Yelp to manipulate reviews and claims to the contrary, which this filmmaker appears to highlight, have been repeatedly dismissed by courts of law, investigated by government regulators, including the FTC, and disproven by academic study.”