Seth McMillan's barber left town, so he was in need of someone new to cut his hair. And, as an attorney, he said, he needed to make sure the cut was good. That in mind, he turned to the online review site Yelp.
There he found Johnny Boucher of Johnny's Classic Barber Shop, 855 Cerrillos Road, and on March 14, McMillan said he was still satisfied by Boucher's cuts two trips later.
"The reviews completely matched the product," McMillan said. "Yelp was pretty helpful."
For those out of the know, Yelp is a free website where consumers can leave online reviews for businesses they visit. And for some business owners, it's a site that's helped some local business, as was the case for Boucher.
He said he started Johnny's Classic Barber Shop in 2011 November after leaving his job at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center. Cutting hair, he said, had always been a passion of his, but he had little business experience. That said, he put himself on every free online service he could find, Yelp included.
At first, he relied on walk-in traffic from his lucrative location off Cerrillos Road just a mile north from the St. Francis Drive and Cerrillos Road intersection. And slowly, he began getting repeat customers, but then he started noticing a trend -- people saying that they had read about him on Yelp -- which accelerated the growth of his client list. And while Boucher said he's sure his shop would have grown to its current size eventually, the rapid pace ensured he stayed in business long enough for it to happen.
"I don't know if my business would have survived otherwise," Boucher said inside his shop. "Only now I am not staring at the ceiling worrying about my bills."
Boucher's shop now has a five-star rating on Yelp with 15 positive reviews. He is also booked solid two days out at a time, and he is sometimes forced to turn away walk-in customers.
However, that success story isn't the same for every business. Just ask Christopher Lloyd, the owner of a computer supply and repair shop, Super Computer LLC., 2010 Cerrillos Road.
Lloyd had a run-in with a customer that eventually ended in court, and now that customer has taken to Yelp to leave negative reviews and slam Lloyd's business. Lloyd says he can only guess how many customers he's lost as a result.
Other negative comments also include one from a consumer who had never been to Super Computer. And, according to Yelp's guidelines, that review is against the rules because reviews must be first-hand experiences, not hearsay. But Lloyd said it's still on his page.
If the review were not there, "That would make a big difference in my rating," Lloyd said. "That would get me up to four stars."
And while it's not uncommon to have disgruntled customers periodically, what's more curious is that the six or seven other positive reviews Lloyd does have get moved by Yelp's filter review to a different page. It's that practice, Lloyd said, that irritates him, and it's one he's unable to control.
Lloyd said he has tried to reach Yelp representatives multiple times to complain about the reviews, but he said he still has yet to receive word from the company. Lloyd also said he's heard of a service wherein small businesses can pay Yelp money to get rid of the negative reviews, a practice that Lloyd compared to extortion. However, Yelp representative Kristen Whisenand said that that's not accurate.
"There's no amount money to pay to filter out the negative reviews," Whisenand said in a telephone interview. "Any claims against that are just untrue."
Whisenand said the company does offer an advertising service, but that it doesn't affect reviews. Rather, it affects how many people actually see a business's Yelp page. She did add, though, that some online reputation companies may offer services to downplay negative reviews, though their ability to do so remains questionable.
Whisenand also said that some of Lloyd's positive reviews may have been filtered because of the newness of the reviewers. And she added that some businesses do encounter issues with the Yelp review filter, a system that, according to the company, pushes the most informative reviews to the forefront. Filtered reviews can still be seen by users, but they have to click on a special link and enter a captcha code.
It should be noted that Yelp's no strange to extortion claims. In February 2010, Wired ran an article about a California veterinarian that filed a lawsuit claiming that Yelp representatives were attempting to extort him. From the article: "The suit alleges that the site tried to get a Long Beach veterinary hospital named Cats and Dogs Animal Hospital to pay $300 a month -- for a minimum 12-month commitment -- to suppress or delete reviews that disparaged the hospital ..."
That suit was eventually dismissed by a federal judge in California, according to an April 2011 article by The Huffington Post.
A similar case was also reported in the East Bay Express, a publication that serves the Oakland, Calif., area, back in 2009, but in both cases Yelp categorically denied such claims.
Despite the controversy surrounding the site, everyday consumers such as Django Zeeman continue to use it. Zeeman, a recent transplant from Asheville, Ore., said the site's been instrumental helping him find his way around town. He also said he doesn't trust every review, just the ones loaded with details, and that he doesn't solely rely on Yelp.
"I don't think it has replaced word of mouth," Zeeman said.
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