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You might have read a story or two about Yelp, and how it has been accused of manipulating reviews and extorting small businesses in order to reward advertisers (and punish non-advertisers).

Well, the popular online reviews site is firing back and saying that these are wrongful accusations. No, it does not extort businesses.

In a recent blog post, Vince Sollitto, Yelp Corporate Communications VP, asserted that the extortion claims on Yelp have never been true. “Some news outlets have recently run stories or columns re-hashing the sensational allegation that Yelp manipulates reviews and ratings to reward advertisers or punish non-advertisers,” he wrote. “Let me be clear: This claim is not – and has never been – true.”

(Check out: “YELP HELP: The Ultimate Guide to Optimizing Your Yelp Business Page / Listing”)

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Sollitto then went on to cite several reasons that demonstrate the integrity of aggregated local reviews on Yelp. These include: third-party research by Harvard Business School and Yale finding no connection between advertising on Yelp and the site’s Review Filter; the dismissal of court cases in which Yelp has been accused of extortion; and the simple fact that even paying Yelp advertisers are not immune to negative reviews.

Sollitto said: “The words ‘Yelp Sponsor’ only appear on pages of advertisers, which begs the question: if these Yelp advertisers get a special ‘Delete’ button for negative reviews, why in the world aren’t they using it? (Hint: because it doesn’t exist.)”

Alternatively, local businesses that do not pay for ads on Yelp can still generate positive reviews and four- or five-star ratings on the online reviews platform. Strong evidence of this was presented in a recent study by the Boston Consulting Group, which revealed that small businesses with free Yelp business accounts – which can be claimed just by signing up and creating a Yelp listing – see an average of $8,000 in annual revenue from the site.

Explaining further the dynamic of the Yelp Review Filters, Sollitto revealed that about 20 percent of reviews posted on Yelp do not make it past its review management and automated filtering software – and thus end up in a separate “Filtered Review” page. Because Yelp does not favor advertisers by selective filtering, he admitted that some perfectly genuine reviews occasionally get caught in these filters.

“This is the price we have to pay given the reality of efforts to mislead consumers,” Sollitto said. “If consumers can’t trust Yelp’s content to give them an accurate prediction of their offline experience with a business, the site won’t be useful to anyone – consumers looking for great local businesses and great local businesses looking to be discovered by new customers.”

Do you suspect that your local business page on Yelp and other similar review sites is receiving fake reviews? Here are 10 savvy ways to tell the difference between what’s real and what isn’t.

Crystal Shuller

Crystal is the Director of Customer Happiness for ReviewTrackers. She's known around the office for E-mails that make everyone smile, and she has a bag of tricks and tips to help businesses solve their problems and delight their customers.