Yelp is still hoping to avoid a Blackfish-style takedown after the recent release of a long-gestating documentary in which business owners take aim at the review platform for what they say is an extortion scheme.
The company purchased the domain BillionDollarBully.com and bought Google ads for the search term “Billion Dollar Bully,” the movie’s title, which redirects to a page on Yelp’s website explaining that Yelp does not, in fact, extort local businesses or manipulate review ratings.
The documentary, by San Francisco filmmaker Kaylie Milliken, was first announced in 2015, and it had Yelp on the defense almost from the beginning, with the company even sending a communications executive to spar with Milliken on CNBC. But Billion Dollar Bully seemed to fall off the radar for a few years, drawing questions and speculation from some of its original Kickstarter backers who wondered if it would ever see the light of day.
I asked the filmmakers about the delay, and a rep for the project told me some of the people involved were concerned about litigation from Yelp. Either way, the movie was just made available on Amazon and iTunes this month, and now Yelp is once again on the defense with a Google ad campaign—ironic, seeing how Yelp is famously no fan of Google. The movie’s PR team have called the ads “more mafia-like tactics.”
Reached for comment, a Yelp spokesperson said the company is just trying to educate the public, noting that courts have repeatedly dismissed claims of extortion by the company.
“We’ve had a page on our website to educate people about these false claims for some time now,” the spokesperson said. “We’ve taken the actions you mention simply to help people find the facts about the misinformation in the film, including people who may be hearing about these false claims for the first time, since this film was announced several years ago.”
It’s fair to wonder what a company Yelp’s size stands to gain by further engaging with a low-budget movie that clearly has an agenda, but then some of the stories in Billion Dollar Bully are pretty compelling, irrespective of the movie’s extortion claims. Business owners describe aggressive tactics from Yelp sales people, hateful rants that clearly violate Yelp’s content guidelines, and endless frustration with Yelp’s mysterious recommendation system, in which some reviews are automatically filtered out of a business’s Yelp profile.
Then there’s one of the most common complaints of all about Yelp—that there’s no way to opt out of it. Had that option been available to some of these Yelp critics, the movie would probably have been over before it started.