Film Takes On Yelp Extortion Claims

Chris CrumBusiness

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Well, it was probably only a matter of time. Someone is making a documentary about Yelp and its alleged "extortion" practices. It's called Billion Dollar Bully, and it's raising funds on Kickstarter as we speak.

Would you be interested in seeing this film? Let us know in the comments.

The project comes from Prost Productions and Director/Producer Kaylie Milliken, who is based in San Francisco - Yelp's home turf. The Kickstarter campaign describes Billion Dollar Bully as "a documentary on marketing giant Yelp's $3.6 billion racket against small business owners." A press release for the film came out on Wednesday. It says:

Billion Dollar Bully is a feature length documentary examining Yelp's business practices involving claims of extortion, review manipulation and review fabrication.

Billion Dollar Bully features business owners from across a broad spectrum who have stepped up and agreed to tell their personal stories of Yelp's questionable business dealings, all of which are vehemently denied by Yelp, who instead states all allegations are merely conspiracy theories.

If nothing else, that last part is definitely true. Yelp does deny such allegations and commonly dismisses them as conspiracy theories. The allegations have been going on for years now (like at least six), and have not shown any signs of stopping.

Business Insider shared this statement from a Yelp spokesperson about Billion Dollar Bully:

The director has a conflict of interest, as she has a history of trying to mislead consumers on Yelp. There is no merit to the claims they appear to highlight, which have been repeatedly dismissed by courts of law, investigated by government regulators, including the FTC, and disproven by academic study.

We reached out to Yelp for additional comment and details about this "conflict of interest" and misleading of consumers. A spokesperson said the company is not commenting further at this time, which is interesting itself, because typically they have no problem calling out specific businesses about "shady business tactics".

The spokesperson pointed us to the following blog posts for reference of the company's stance on the claims at hand:

  • U.S. Appeals Court affirms the dismissal of cases brought against Yelp with extortion claims
  • FTC concludes its investigation into Yelp business practices; ended its inquiry without taking further action
  • Independent study by Harvard Business School Professor Michael Luca and Professor Giorgos Zervas of Boston University debunked the allegations that Yelp provides preferential treatment to advertiser
  • According to her bio, Millken has over twelve years in the film and video industry. She says, "Like millions of others, I used to use Yelp. Then, I was speaking with my physician one day, and she told me about the extremely aggressive sales tactics that had been used on her in an attempt to get her to sign up to pay to advertise with Yelp. I began researching Yelp, and found that her claims were not unique. Thousands of businesses claim extortion, review manipulation, and even review fabrication by Yelp."

    Milliken told International Business Times, "I was at a doctor about a year ago, and she started telling me about her experiences with Yelp. The more she talked about it, the more my jaw just kind of dropped. I knew that they had aggressive sales people -- my husband is a small-business owner and he’s complained before about how pushy they can be. But then she started telling me about receiving reviews, really negative reviews by clients, and she couldn’t figure out who these clients were. She was really upset over it. And then she received a review where the client listed ailments about themselves that she had never seen before, and this was the day after she had gotten off the phone with someone from Yelp."

    Of course the film has not even been finished yet, so we'll see what Milliken and the businesses have to say about it, and what (if any) kind of evidence they can point to. It's actually half filmed so far. Funds raised through Kickstarter will be used for things like videography, editing, travel expenses, closed captioning, and music composition, according to Milliken.

    She says without raising the funds, she won't be able to complete the project.

    "To ensure we do this on the tightest budget possible, the staff is not taking a salary so all money can go towards outside contracted work," the Kickstarter page says. "We are confident we can produce a high quality, impacting, hard-hitting movie."

    Here's a trailer:

    And a message from Milliken:

    According to Milliken, most business owners she spoke with about their Yelp issues declined to go on camera for fear of retaliation from Yelp. One restauranteur that does appear obviously doesn't care about that, after making headlines last year for courting negative reviews as a middle finger to the company.

    "They said that they’ve worked hard to get back in Yelp’s good graces, and they don’t want to jeopardize that," Milliken told IBTimes of the declining businesses. "Ideally I would love to interview somebody at Yelp, but so far they’ve declined...they’ve told me they would answer questions via email, but they won’t let me record a phone call and they won’t let me go in with a camera."

    Milliken claims to have screenshots that back up claims made in the documentary, and says she's well aware of the Harvard study Yelp has pointed to time and time again as "debunking extortion conspiracy theories".

    Last month, Yelp released its earnings report for the fourth quarter and full year 2014, which showed 48% growth in local advertising accounts over the course of last year. Company execs discussed the progress of its ad offerings during the ensuing conference call, and said they intend to increase sales headcount by 40% this year. This will mostly be in the United States.

    COO Geoff Donaker told investors on the call that many of its salespeople come to Yelp straight out of college or within a few years thereafter, but "we take all comers and there's all different kinds of folks."

    "But it is a sales training program and so most of that headcount is folks who are reaching out to local businesses of different stripes," he added.

    Yelp announced in January that the FTC had closed an investigation into its business practices without taking any action against it. We haven't had a chance to ask Milliken so far, but my guess is that she's also aware of that. It will be interesting to see the completed project and if we learn anything new.

    At the time of writing, the Kickstarter campaign has 82 backers, and has reached $10,525 of its $60,000 goal with 31 days left to go. At this rate it should have no problem reaching it. Two backers have contributed $1,500 or more each, and five more have contributed at least $500. Fifteen have pledged at least $100.

    Update: Milliken sent us the following statement in response to Yelp's official statement, "As previous consumers of Yelp, we (Kaylie Milliken and Mellissa Wood [Associate Producer]) were and continue to be interested in highlighting business practices involving claims of extortion, review manipulation and review fabrication. This documentary will examine these claims, the rulings of the court in which Yelp won, and why Yelp won those cases."

    Also, as of 8:40 AM on Friday, the Kickstarter campaign has raised over $16K from 134 backers.

    Has Yelp's defense been sufficient in making you believe the company? Do you think there is merit to the claims the documentary is looking into? Share your thoughts in the comments.

    Image via Kickstarter

    Chris Crum

    Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.