For the last few years, corporate giant Facebook has monopolized the critical social media limelight, often harshly upbraided for a panoply of sins related to invasion of privacy, off-the-charts offensive postings by users and being hijacked by extremists.
But on May 21 the focus will likely shift to scrutinize the practices of the San Francisco-based website corporation Yelp profiled in a blistering documentary titled “Billion Dollar Bully.”
The Kaylie Milliken-produced film lives up to its provocative title — and then some.
Yelp is best known as a Go-To app on phones and computers when people search for, well, just about anything. Many Yelp aficionados won’t make a move without checking the Yelp star rating.
It’s that Yelp rating system — and allegations about the huge corporation’s business practices managing those ratings — that makes for a compelling and often damning film.
Don’t expect “Billion Dollar Bully” to get a good Yelp review — or any review on a Yelp web page.
That’s the point.
The film documents that while Yelp appears to be simply a good place for users to go to find the best taco, tire shop, hotel or even medical help, it’s clearly a for-profit billion-dollar-plus organization, relying on advertising dollars from businesses to make its money
While that might seem like a traditional capitalist operation, the film unveils a darker side.
In numerous filmed interviews, business owners say when they declined to accept Yelp’s proffered advertising program — at prices at $400 a month or more to better manage their ratings — their already-posted good ratings suddenly were vanquished to a much less-visible part of the website with one-star assessments suddenly the first thing searchers would see.
The same thing would happen when they decided to drop Yelp’s business advertising program, they said.
You don’t have to be a search-engine-optimization expert to know that if all the bad reviews are at the top of a website and favorable ones obscured, people using Yelp are less likely to chose to patronize that business.
Some of the film’s interviewees say this kind of manipulation of Yelp ratings by the company pushed them out of business. Many use frank terms like “extortion” to describe the aggressive sales approach of Yelp advertising sales staff.
Yelp declined to be interviewed directly for the film, though many public statements claiming innocence are threaded through the two-hour movie.
“Billion Dollar Bully” is a polished piece of filmmaking that raises a lot more than just questions about Yelp’s alleged bad businesses practices.
After viewing the film, it’s hard not to wonder how ratings might be skewed at other rating websites and whether those companies might be using promises of good ratings as a way to generate income.
Perhaps most alarming overall was the film’s segment in which it was revealed businesses listed on Yelp cannot remove themselves from the website.
For better or worse, their business is listed on the site and can’t quit.
That seems epically wrong.
Perhaps some clever, web-savvy programmer/app creator could create a rating website for the rating companies. Then firms like Yelp that rate businesses could find themselves on the receiving end, with users indicating which rating firms they believe to have good business practices and which are predators interested solely in profits.
“Billion Dollar Bully” will be available to stream, download, or view on DVD Tuesday.
Write On gives it 5 stars.