Billion Dollar Bully, an investigative documentary about the social review site Yelp, was released to rave reviews on May 21st, 2019. The documentary directed by Kaylie Milliken and produced by Prost Films, was first announced on the fundraising site Kickstarter on March 16th, 2015.
Naturally, the film had Yelp on the defensive almost from the beginning… and for good reason. Billion Dollar Bully intended to examine and expose multiple claims of review fabrication, ranking manipulation, and outright extortion of small business owners.
As expected, word caught on quickly upon the project’s posting to Kickstarter. It was a highly publicized campaign that was chosen as a Kickstarter staff pick and far surpassed it’s fundraising goal of $60,000. In the end, the documentary raised over 150% of their initial goal and became the talk of the town. But that was only the beginning.
A Long Time Coming
Yelp was shaking in their boots. However, for a few years, it seemed that the threat of the documentary’s release may have been over before it started. In fact, the length of time it took to produce and release the film began to draw questions for the original Kickstarter backers. Speculations began to arise and rumors spread that the film may never see a release. But why?
Due to fears of legal repercussion by Yelp, Prost Films and the crew behind Billion Dollar Bully had been biding their time. In reality, the film had been filmed and edited some time ago. However, the team was waiting to ensure they had proper legal representation. Unsurprisingly, they anticipated a suit would be filed against them. As soon as they were confident that they were fully covered, the film was given a release date.
The Protection Racket
For many years now, Yelp has been accused of unethical business practices from a broad spectrum of unhappy clients. Yelp, of course, chalks up their unethical and suspicious marketing tactics as simple conspiracy theories. Unsurprisingly, if that tactic fails to quell the cries of shenanigans, Yelp tends to blame the victims, as most bullies do.
Billion Dollar Bully interviews a number of small business owners who all alleged that Yelp strong-armed their businesses. This was done through the use of harassing phone calls and deceptive advertising practices which cost hundreds or thousands of dollars a month. Similar tactics have been employed by the Mafia to get what they want.
Those interviewed note that failure to advertise with the company resulted in positive reviews disappearing from their pages. In other instances, fake reviews were created by Yelp themselves which bashed the business who failed to pay the protection money. Naturally, these negative reviews resulted in less business, less revenue, the closure of companies, and the death of many dreams.
Fear of Billion Dollar Bully
McDonald’s and Sea World received serious blow-back upon the releases of “Supersize Me” and “Blackfish” respectively. Fearing a similar fate, Yelp has done everything in their power to try to silence the film and it’s director. Yelp has been struggling to contain the documentary’s influence since it was first announced, and luckily for them, time has been on their side.
In hopes of avoiding a PR disaster, Yelp went so far as to purchase the domain name BillionDollarBully.com and began buying ad space on Google. Because of this, searches for the film’s title redirect to Yelp’s website. Of course, the page purports that Yelp does not engage in the extortion of local businesses. Billion Dollar Bully’s PR team referred to the ads as “more mafia-like tactics.”
Apparently, when Google caught on, they banned the ads within a day or two of the film’s release. Thankfully, this has once again allowed the truth to be freely spread without Yelp’s suppressive influence.
One might question why a company of Yelp’s size and stature is so worried about a low-budget documentary. However, upon viewing the film, it’s easy to see why. Many of the interviews and claims made within are pretty damning. One thing is for sure… their customers are not happy.
Unsurprisingly, Yelp has challenged the claims. They say they have never manipulated or fabricated reviews in any way. A Yelp spokesperson claimed that the company was simply trying to educate the public about apparent falsehoods and misinformation. Yelp was also quick to note that court cases related to similar claims have been repeatedly dismissed. While Yelp continually plays the victim, more claims of extortion and manipulation pour in daily.
Leading up to the days before the film’s release, Yelp began to heavily advertise on Facebook as well. Their ads horribly backfired with an endless stream of comments from angry business owners. They all claim Yelp had extorted them and caused irreparable harm to their companies. Most of these business owners regretted ever having claimed their profiles, as this triggered harassing phone calls and bullying within a day of doing so. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
Personal Experience with Yelp
We first found out about Billion Dollar Bully from a client we were representing. We were in charge of handling the promotion of his multiple businesses. In far too many instances, we saw the claims made in the film happening in real time. It simply couldn’t be a coincidence.
While none of the Yelp representatives ever told us outright that paying for ad space would increase positive review visibility or remove negative reviews, we noticed it happening right away.
However, we noticed something else. The ads we were paying for weren’t delivering the results we had expected. Only a small portion of our advertising budget was being spent targeting our audience. About 15% of the budget was depleted slowly over the first 3 weeks. Then, when time was running out for Yelp to deliver, a miraculous thing happened. Suddenly, the whole ad budget had been expended within the last 3-4 days of the month.
It turns out that Yelp has been unable to properly target the customer base requested. To fudge the numbers they essentially tossed the remaining funds in the trash and showed ads to anyone, no matter their location or the searches they performed. This was actually a subject that Billion Dollar Bully addresses in the film.
Upon this realization, we dropped our budget spend to see what would happen. Without fail, the positive reviews began to disappear. Right on cue. We also noticed that cutting the budget by nearly 65% actually yielded similar results as our previous spend. In other words, spending $500 in ads delivered a similar number of clients as $2,000 would have.
Finally, after having enough of Yelp’s nonsense, we agreed to cancel ad services with Yelp all together. Within a day, he lost 3 more positive reviews. Over the course of time, 10/20 positive reviews would be shelved in Yelp’s filtered review section. It was clearly a result of our choice to no longer advertise with Yelp.
Make sure to check it out and spread the word. If you own and operate a small business, you need to watch this documentary. This vital information needs to get out to the masses before more businesses are harmed. Please do your part and let your friends and family know about Billion Dollar Bully today.
If you or your business has been negatively affected by Yelp, voice your opinion here. Share your story so others can avoid a similar fate.
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