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    Yelp’s Rocky Relationship with Small Business

    by Lauren Orsini
    January 29, 2013
    Photo taken by "Flickr user Michael Dorausch":http://www.flickr.com/photos/chiropractic/ and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Jordan Shafran’s family owned construction business, Shafran Construction, has been in the business of home improvement for 25 years. It has an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau, hundreds of happy customers — and a one-star review on Yelp.

    “Shafran Construction Company did the worst possible job I’ve ever seen,” reads the sole review, written by a Yelper named John D. who is faceless, friendless, and inactive since 2010. However, thanks to this anonymous review, Shafran’s single star rating shows up as the second Google result for his name, haunting his business even now. Shafran’s attempts to contact “John Doe,” as he calls him, have not been returned.

    This could turn out to be a classic [Intellectual Property] lawsuit, because it's a modern case where modern technology is wrestling with old-fashioned notions of reputation and business practices." -Roy Gutterman

    To make matters worse, Shafran has received more than 18 five-star Yelp reviews from happy customers. They’re just not visible — Yelp has placed these reviews under a small, barely discernible “Filtered” link, the site’s automatic defense mechanism against potential spam.

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    “It’s very odd that out of 19 reviews posted, Yelp’s filter has decided that the single negative review is the only one that isn’t spam,” Shafran said. “For the little guy, what Yelp is doing is definitely frustrating. Everything is Web-based these days and they control you like a puppet.”

    Shafran hypothesizes that he’s been blacklisted for refusing to advertise with Yelp, a deal that starts at $300 a month. He told MediaShift that his positive reviews were filtered shortly after he asked to stop receiving calls from Yelp salespeople.

    “It’s more like a mafia if you think about it,” he said. “Unless you pay them, the company will only show negative reviews.”

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    “The bully in the schoolyard”

    i-cc185b0333bbba065204b2e21af90ef7-yelp_stickers_by_unnormalized_flickrcc-thumb-300x400-6144.jpg

    Accusations of extortion might seem like a stretch, but not if you’ve been following Yelp’s shaky history with small business. They’ve been the subject of two class action suits — though both were dismissed before they got to trial. A third is in the works. A 2009 East Bay Express article titled Yelp and the Business of Extortion 2.0, though roundly dismissed by Yelp, continues to host recent comments from upset business owners, some posted as recently as January 2013, all with stories similar to Shafran’s.

    What it all comes down to is small business owners’ beliefs that the Yelp filter, designed to spot spam, is not doing its job correctly.

    The founder of anti-Yelp site Yelp Sucks, business consultant Adryenn Ashley, asserts that there is something seriously detrimental about Yelp’s filtration algorithm, which was designed to remove spam and maintain Yelp’s slogan: “Real people, real reviews.”

    “The filter is broken,” she said. “I’ve heard of people who buy a business’s Yelp deal, check in on Yelp when they get there, write a review, and still get filtered as spam. It makes users upset, like their words aren’t getting validated.”

    Ashley says the filter is inconsistent.

    “When Yelp says they have an algorithm, that means one thing, but what it seems like what they actually have is rules. They get different results every time,” she said.

    Ashley’s site, Yelp Sucks, is a 600-person strong community where many business owners gather to share their Yelp concerns. When this reporter left a comment encouraging members to share their stories, she received more than 70 emails.

    Most of these stories share a common thread. Members believe that advertising with Yelp is the only way to reveal positive reviews and filter negative ones. They have a single visible one-star review and dozens of filtered five-star reviews. When they contact Yelp about the filtered reviews, they say they are told the reviews aren’t genuine. This is no small handful of complainers either; a recent FOIA request to the Federal Trade Commission revealed more than 700 complaints against Yelp over the last four years.

    Ashley says Yelp’s power to make or break business reputations has made people desperate.

    “People call me and they’re crying on the phone because they haven’t got anyone to listen,” she said. “When you talk to these people, you hear the pain in their voices like they’re being squeezed, like they have no choice.

    “Yelp is the bully on the schoolyard and this community is the only place where they can have their voices heard.”

    An emphasis on education

    Yelp is acutely aware of what many small business owners are thinking. But according to spokeswoman Kristen Whisenand, the filter is here to stay.

    “I understand the filter is a point of frustration, but if it weren’t in place we’d be overrun by shills and malicious content,” she said, pointing out that Google and Amazon have also added filters.

    Whisenand said business owners aren’t wrong when they suspect more positive reviews are filtered than negative ones. However, that’s because of Yelp’s review ratio, not any malicious intent on the site’s part.

    “Small business owners think that more positive reviews are filtered out than negative ones and in a way they’re right, because people write more positive reviews in the first place. Eighty percent of Yelp reviews are three stars or higher so these are filtered more often than negative reviews. There’s no way to 100 percent perfect the system.”*

    NOTE: Please see update below on changes to this quote.

    Either way, said Whisenand, the idea that advertising with Yelp can alter the filter is a myth.

    “There is no amount of money you can pay Yelp to manipulate your reviews, and we do not punish people who don’t advertise,” she said.

    Wisenand said the filtering system isn’t perfect, but “does a pretty good job given its task.” She points out that reviews are not permanently banished to the filtered tag — what is marked as filtered today may be revised as legitimate feedback later on. Since Yelp is always in the process of improving the filter, the company has instead tried to resolve its image problem with small businesses in a more immediate way.

    Jose Luis Rojano of Lucha Libre Gourmet Taco Shop is part of Yelp’s solution. He’s a member of Yelp’s Small Business Advisory Council, a dozen or so business owners from all fields who advise Yelp on its relations with small businesses.

    “A lot of my business owner friends hate Yelp,” Rojano said. “The way I see it, people will be talking about your business regardless, whether on Yelp or blogs. At least Yelp gives you the opportunity to get involved in those conversations.”

    Rojano meets with the Yelp Advisory Council for a monthly group phone meeting. The chief topic of discussion is how the group can help educate business owners on using the site in a positive way.

    Aside from these talks, Rojano gets no special treatment. He doesn’t advertise with Yelp or pay any fee to be on the council. He has more than 250 filtered reviews, many from active Yelp accounts with photos, and nothing he says to Yelp will change that. But he said the council has changed his attitude about how to work with Yelp.

    “Yelp does give consumers a lot of power to make or break a business, and a lot of business owners are afraid of it because it does. It takes your business and puts it out in the open,” he said.

    “You can either hide from that or use it as a tool to promote your business.”

    No solution in sight

    Rojano is one of the lucky ones. With his four-star average on Yelp, his words may not be much consolation to a business owner who has had all of her five-star reviews filtered. And unfortunately, the latter case is the one that’s easier to find online.

    “I get calls every day to advertise and when I suggest that I might if they tell me about the algorithm that hides my reviews, they suggest that ‘advertising might open it up so that more people will review it and then the algorithm will change to include the hidden reviews,’” wrote Amy Lewis of Whole Health Associates.

    This is one of many statements emailed to the reporter, but a quick Google search for “Yelp scam” nets hundreds more. Yelp’s official response is that business owners don’t understand the complex algorithm, but this explanation doesn’t sit right with Shafran.

    “I’m a very computer-savvy person. I’ve spoken with Yelp numerous times, and they always say I don’t understand how the site or the filtration system works. I don’t buy it.”

    With Yelp saying one thing and hundreds of business owners saying the opposite, the only way to resolve the situation would be to have a legal investigation. One White House petition even urges the Attorney General to investigate.

    According to Roy Gutterman, associate professor of communications law and journalism at Syracuse University and director of the Tully Center for Free Speech, it’d be hard to say if Yelp is doing anything wrong.

    “This could turn out to be a classic [Intellectual Property] lawsuit, because it’s a modern case where modern technology is wrestling with old-fashioned notions of reputation and business practices,” he said.

    “I can envision a government agency intervening to a certain extent, but if business owners are going for an extortion charge, there’s going to be a lot to prove.”

    • UPDATE (1/29/13; 1:10 pm PT): Yelp spokesperson Kristen Whisenand contacted me about a quote that was taken out of context that stated “more often than not, even though some of the reviews may seem real, they’re not.” In an email she explained more on that count:

    I would never say that the filtered reviews aren’t real — in fact, I specifically [said] that we admit the system isn’t perfect and sometimes perfectly legitimate reviews get filtered and fake reviews remain listed.

    In an earlier email she said:

    I want to clarify that reviews that get filtered aren’t necessarily “spam.”…We admit that our filtering system isn’t perfect — it sometimes filters out perfectly legitimate reviews and sometimes suspicious reviews remain on a business listing — but we think it does a pretty good job given its task. The filtering process also isn’t instantaneous; reviews can move into and out of the filter at any time. It’s important to note that Yelp is a community review site, not a drive-by one.

    Photo of “People on Yelp Hate Us” by Steven & Courtney Johnson & Horwitz on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Lauren Orsini is a journalist based in the greater Washington, D.C. area. Her reporting has appeared in Forbes, CNN, and the Daily Dot.

    Tagged: listings local listings online reviews small business yelp yelp sucks
    • Gabe Carini

      Our heating and air conditioning company in San Diego has been stifled by YELP for years now, the company that hides every good review our company gets and publishes tons of reviews for companies that pay them month after month. There’s absolutely nothing mysterious about YELP’s algorithm – it simply says, “Don’t publish reviews from companies that don’t pay for advertising.” YELP can’t tell a fake review from a real one, and it doesn’t care. All it cares about is that someone is paying them to advertise on their site, and advertisers get the reviews.

    • Junior’s Carpet Cleaning

      Yelp is a SCAM, all of our positive reviews have been hidden and the only review that is left is a bogus negative review.

    • regular guy

      I’ve never used Yelp to make any purchasing decisions. Their are tons of people who don’t; I would say most people if I had to guess. Whether these complaint are legit or not; if your business is failing it isn’t because of yelp.

    • charlie

      I looked over the reviews on Yelp for this small town. They are way off target. They hide the real reviews. Shame on them.

    • kevin

      As a small business owner i full agree. I cannot turn down a yelp review though…damn them

    • Edgar

      I am a business owner. The way yelp handles reviews is a scam I have a A+ rating with BBB and in yelp I have a one star. All the good reviews I have for my business are filtered. I think the filter is a way of harming business across the nation. Don’t support yelp and register with BBB their are fair and have a system of knowing when customers are taken care of.

    • YelpLOL

      Yelp is garbage, their “Mathematical Algorithm” is an easy formula.

      Pay us money+advertise= everything is fine for you

      Anyone who actually takes yelp seriously needs their head checked

    • Fuck Yelp

      Fuck Yelp! They leave my good reviews up for just a few days then filter them. The bad reviews are posted permanently. Fuck Yelp!!

    • There’s Another Way!

      The only way to beat Yelp is to use other review sites. I began using this start-up called myfab5. They only post POSITIVE restaurant reviews so I know they’re actually looking out for small business owners.

      • rhondaleebaby69

        What good is a site that only posts positive reviews? How the hell does that help a diner make an informed decision on where to eat?

      • Dialn911

        Only positive reviews? What a joke.

    • Marina

      I’m with you FUCK YELP. I worked for Servers on Demand for 6yrs and we have a good reputation with all are corporate companies and private clients. We got a bad review from someone in San Diego WOW!!!!! we don’t do events that far. Are good reviesw can’t be seen. FUCK YELP

    • John

      We sign a 3 month contract with Yelp for $2100 a month and after first month we want to downgrade it to $1500 because Yelp doesn’t work. they told us when we signed the contract that we can downgrade, but when we speak with them again they said no we can’t. Yelp stuck us with a 3 month contract without any option, we are very not happy, hope will not to do business with Yelp (their play was to say that the customer can downgrade at any time (but with an approval of the account manager) In reality account manager saying no, highly “professional” people) Be aware!!!

    • UN AMERICAN

      Yelp has hurt our 32 year old business, we
      have 1000 satisfied account, 60 satisfied crews that do cleaning & 20
      office employees that love their job. We still have our 1st account
      since 1982. Occasionally, we have disgruntled customers that can’t pay their
      bills, want us to do different services we are not equipped for, they want to
      get out of their contract, or our competitors also will give us negative
      comments that are not true. There are 2
      sides to every story. The majority of comments are negative in Yelp. This is
      not the American way. You are not guilty before proven innocent. Before BBB gives a rating, they hear the two
      sides to the story and determine who is wrong. It only takes a few negative
      reviews to get a 1 star rating in Yelp. We had many potential accounts that
      didn’t go with us because they referred to Yelp, and believed the lies told
      about us. You shouldn’t publish anything a person says without verifying it.
      Especially in business, and when it comes to finances that can damage a company’s
      credibility. Even in show business or sports, articles that are not true are
      challenged & clarified. We had an
      account Beverly Hills courier that we serviced since 1984. They gave us a great
      review when they moved and had in house service. Yelp didn’t put the review on
      our Yelp page.

    • Lori

      Try Yahoo, Bing instead of Google. Although they are not fancy like google, but at least you do not have to see Yelp reviews forcefully.

    • David

      I have THREE reviews where the follow up was an email asking for MONEY. In all three cases I sent those emails to YELP and yet the reviews remained and I was ignored… I also asked that a review with racist comments be removed and was also ignored. Where there is smoke, there IS fire

    • Joe Spencer

      Have to say there is a solution in sight… Found out about this new site based out of SF called mOctopus. They have all the same contact information listings as yelp except there is also inventory available for showcase. Best part, no reviews. Seems like it might be better for local businesses to just be able to put themselves out there without being subject to this kind of extortion.

    • GreatUSofA

      I’m also a victim or extortion from Yelp. Since I started my business I had 3 5 stars reviews and 1 2 stars. I kept getting calls from Yelp asking me to pay for their service. I refused and few weeks later my good reviews started to disappear. Even now the good reviews are still being “filtered” but not the bad.
      Is there anything we can do to these nazi’s ?

      • jtran

        same here. I am thinking how to get $$ to pay them.

    • T W

      yelp and urbanspoon are same they fuck up all the businesses those don’t advertise with them. The businesses who advertise with them 300$ a month or more they will raise up whoever good or bad. That how they make the shitty money.

    • Atlanta Business

      Our business has A+ rating on BBB, 5-Star Rating on Kudzu and A rating for Angie’s list. There are over 200 reviews on these sites. We have 2 negative reviews on YELP, and many more that are positive, but are “hidden.” We do not advertise on YELP, but may have to in order to keep our business from being damaged by their dishonest practices. Perhaps if word got out to the general public that this is not a trusted site for reviews, things would change.
      We will do what we can to get the word out about this site and their practices.

    • Carrie Q.

      There is a sophisticated group of hackers (anonymous) who love small businesses and hate big business. They’ve hacked VISA, the Feds, etc. They don’t steal anything, just bring their sites down to a halt. Wouldn’t it be nice if they focused their frustration on Yelp?

    • Dance Family

      Yelp will not even list our business or any other similar business (children’s dance studio) in our area. I suppose it’s a good thing they are not good at finding clients. According to some families they have left good reviews but still we don’t show up on the site. On the other hand, google, bing, yahoo will all show we’ve been in existence for 30+ years. I take it as a good thing we can’t get dinged by Yelp’s strange algorithm.

    • Renate

      Give me an opinion folks…There was an article in the paper where a small business owner was smug and disdainful about federal employees. She was interviewed at her business and made these really smart a$$ remarks. Regardless of your politics, I reviewed her business on Yelp stating, with a link to the article, that people can judge for themselves her remark about the local federal employees (there are two large bases near her business) and I gave her a one star rating. Yelp removed my review saying it wasn’t first hand. I don’t know what could be more first hand that an article in the paper with her views. Am I right or wrong?

    • Paul S

      All one has to do is look at Yelps own reviews under “yelp business..San Francisco”. They have thousands of negative reviews, all filtered from people with many Yelps and friends. Not manipulated? Give me a break!! Yelp is a joke!!

    • Peter

      If “Yelp is a community review site, not a drive-by one.” then why does a single 1-star reviews from an anonymous account stay up. While 5-star reviews from long time accounts with pictures, whose other reviews aren’t filtered end up being filtered on my page? Explain that one please.

    • Maria Jose

      My husband and I own a very reputable and professional Spanish School in NYC. http://www.easyespanol.org
      99% of our sincere, true and honest reviews (from happy students! not fake ones!) are filtered. (13 in total)
      In
      10 years that we have been in business only ONCE we had an argument
      with alady who decided to “vent” because she disliked the teacher (our
      most experiences coach) Because of this incident Easy Espanol has only 3
      stars… in a VERY competitive market as the NYC marketplace.

      When I called yelp you know what they said?
      ohhh well we can “do something about your reviews” you just have to agree to a 1 year CONTRACT of a minimum of $300 per month.

      UNBELIEVABLE… please lets do something.

      Gracias, gracias y gracias!

      MJ
      The antiyelper

    • Patrick

      Just reply to the one star ad with links to your hidden reviews. Worked for me!

    • JustANote

      YELP is ONE SIDED! People who rants on YELP most of the time exaggerate the real situation or what really happened. Some of those rants are funny…..and stupid at the same time, such as ” Hate going to Famous Dave because they made us wait for a long time and still have to wait a long time after being seated to get our foods….!” and they were there on Saturday Night??? seriously…..! I always go to my local businesses…and I don’t look at the YELP review….

    • Dabri

      We need a reverse yelp
      For all the douche bags that feel that they are in fact food critics
      We need to have a reverse yelp for the high maintinence customers
      The ones who tip like shit
      Complain about everything,yet keep coming back
      The ones who can’t discipline their children in an public place
      The ones that abuse the privlage
      The ones that have never spent one moment I the service industry
      If every human was to spend one day in this industry
      I believe there would be world peace
      No doubt!

    • martinw392

      If anyone supports yelp with their advertising dollars i will visit their business just so i can say I did to keep it legal and rip them a new a-hole with a scathing bi polar forgot to take my prozac type 1 star review, I’m super pissed at these yelp pigs, and the war is on! Lets see how long those people continue to support yelp with their advertising dollars after they get ripped on !!

    • Joel Theros

      Yelp is disinterested in ethics. Yelp is disinterested in truth. Yelp is only interested in money.

    • amy

      The same think happened to my company, and unfortunately we cant do anything about it just like everyone else. We can only talk about it to others to release frustration…. Once I refused to advertise with yelp my good reviews went away, Now they are in the filtered review section only to be seen if you click on the link. I know of another company who is one of my main competitors who does advertise with Yelp, when you go to their page all their negative reviews our filtered, and all their good reviews our published all because they pay yelp for this.. They are bullies and should be ashamed…..

    • openborder

      Yelp is going to destroy American small Business if not reigned in , they work for the Big Guys who are Anti_American , Yelp is a Traitor to American small Business,

    • John Platero

      Same issue. Almost of the positive reviews of my company are hidden. Doesn’t make sense

    • Joseph Norton

      It’s not advertising, it’s Click Through Rates, anyone who has ever dabbled with SEO knows that. High CTR is how a sites VALUE is calculated on the interweb. Very, easy to see why they would want to print a “train wreck” under your companies name my yelp page want from about 2 views a month to several hundred from my1 star review(typed in all caps) increasing the value of their stock and lowering mine. I think anyone who’s pretending not to notice that is most likely a Yelp Troll

      • GinoBambino

        Joseph, brilliant observation. So in essence, they are hijacking business brands that dont advertise with them but have high traffic knowing that these businesses will either have to advertise (because they value their reputation) , or at a minimum Yelp can get a lot more traffic (helping their ad dollars and raising visitor counts) for a bad review on a well trafficked site…

        This observation is spot on… That should be grounds for a class action.

    • Bill Zimmer

      YELP is an extortion specialist. They will suppress your good reviews unless you pay them money. It’s a scam. Tell everyone you know not to use YELP.

      • Airpwr7 .

        Bill is exactly right…Yelp is engaging in pure extortion…The good news is that they are currently being sued for defamation and that nobody cares about their communistic filtering of so-called reviews anyway…be patient ya’ll yelp will be dead soon….

        • kim

          I only had the yelp App less than a month and after seeing my 5 star reviews that were absolutely truthful about a wounderful business go unrecommended this happened 3 times and then seeing a persons review of the same business that was filled with very vulgar profanity placed right out there for people to view very disgusting. I started reading this other persons reviews and it was like they were using this app to socialize posting pics of themselves with nothing pertaining to the business using the word f**k or f**king all the time, having conversations with people about personal issues like how their holiday was etc. I did t know this site was suppose to be used like facebook, twitter, or their personal email. Why do they allow this ?? I thought this was an app to make and read reviews. Needless to say i unsubscribed. Its nonsense.

    • Airpwr7 .

      It’s
      interesting that the Yelp representative said that filtered reviews may actually
      be moved out of filtered view to the main page and vice versa over time…Sounds
      to me like Yelp determines where the posts, (negative or positive) are going to
      wind up based on whether or not the business has paid Yelp for advertising or
      not. I’m sure advertising with Yelp is the first string of characters to appear
      in their so-called algorithm…Thank God that algorithm isn’t used to program
      rocket coordinates because people would surely die!!! Best part of this post is
      that the rat-ba$tard$ at Yelp can’t filter it!!

    • Perriwinkle

      We had five stars till we did a Groupon/Living Social offer. Now we have 3.5 stars, all from people we sent back to the seller for trying to beat or bully us into making exceptions to the limitations of their coupon. They did not use our business and they were not our customers.
      Every single one star review of our company was from “that” group of people and did not fly with us. Why? we did not want them to!

      Don;t get me wrong 1400+ customers from coupons only about 50 were bottom feeders.

      Our way of fighting back? Search Skydrifters and Yelp in Google.
      I suggest other businesses not happy with them do something similar.

    • Captive Audience

      I used to write reviews on yelp using my real name. I found out most of
      my reviews went into the “not recommended” section. One of their scams was to show my review amongst the others when I was logged in. I guess it was to prevent me noticing that my reviews had been relegated to the garbage pile. I don’t use or write reviews on yelp anymore. I consider their business model unethical and I hope they end up in the garbage pile.

    • Marlys

      Background : I am a self employed massage therapist. I work alone, from my home. I use my private, home phone number to talk to clients. Every one of my clients has been with me for years and every one of them has a standing appointment. I don’t take new clients; I don’t advertise.

      A client, thinking she was doing me a favor, posted a positive review on Yelp. Within hours of the review, robo calls began blowing up my phone. In less than 24 hours I’ve receive more than 20 calls from Tenessee, California, Washington and New York. And they’re still coming in.

      I tried to take down my personal information. Yelp has a function that allows me to “suggest” edits but nothing that allows me any sort of control over my own information. I’ve made five different pleas to Yelp, explaining the situation. To no avail.

      Not only has my home phone been infiltrated by spammers, now any lunatic with a mind to, can visit my home.

      I work in a industry plagued by prostitution — sex workers who hide behind “massage therapy” to pedal their wares. As a self employed, female massage therapist I’ve had to deal with my share of men looking for something more than a therapeutic back rub. Let me tell you, it’s scary when you suddenly realize the naked man in your room has mistaken you for a prostitute.

      As mentioned, I’ve sent numerous pleas to Yelp, begging them to take down my private contact information. The only response I’ve received has been from sales reps who want to “help” me drive more traffic to my site.

      The Yelp site provides a disclaimer: “While we understand that some business owners might prefer to keep a low profile, it’s important (and a legal right) for consumers to be able to find and share helpful information about great local businesses.” So, basically, ‘eff you, your privacy and your safety. We can, so we will.’

      I suppose I can change my phone number and move from the place I’ve been 25 years. This is a nightmare.

    • Shelley

      Yelp is forcing me to advertise with them even though I own my business not yelp… I told them about my constitutional rights but they don’t care, even when i spoke to the CRTC they told me that YELP has NO right to keep me on there site against my wishes.. I feel as a business owner a should be able to advertise with whom ever I choose… not be forced to be on YELP site, and they make money off of my business through advertisers for steeling my business advertising. I did not give them permission to steel by business NAME. And they put nothing but Fake reviews.

    • A League of Extraordinary Move

      I hear some people say they used yelp and it was o.k. It gave them good info on services.Great ,We are not saying that yelpers can’t direct you to some good businesses but they can steer you away from some honest companies simply because those company did not cave in and paid for advertising.I will say that yelp does cost the consumer more money for those services that are highly rated/advertise.My business is primarily repeat/referrals.Now if another business has to pay yelp $1200.00 a month for advertising/reviews where do you think they get their money from? You,the consumer. If yelp was truly the unbiased review site that is portraying itself to be then no one would have to pay for advertising. That’s why they tell companies not to ask real customers to send in reviews,seriously they have a section on “Don’t ask customers for reviews”.If a person sees a company that has a 5 star rating with 100′s of great reviews who did not advertise next to a company who pays big bucks for advertising or for being placed on top of the search list with only 3 stars who do you think the customer will contact?

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