Account Executives (and pretty sure everyone in the sales division all the way up to the VP of Sales) had no direct way of removing reviews (and I strongly believe this has not changed). When I was there, the only way for an Account Executive to have a review removed was to email customer service and provide a solid explanation as to why it violated the review guidelines. And I can tell you that many times it wasn't easy; customer service had strict guidelines to follow and I (and my friends) had plenty of arguments that went nowhere. Theoretically, an Account executive could make friends with a customer service rep or someone on the development team and try to persuade them to remove a review, but this is highly unlikely because if found out, everyone involved would be fired (so there's a huge risk) and I can tell you from personal experience, removing a few reviews is not going to make or break a sale (so it's not worth the risk).
While it was a (sometimes extremely) frustrating process, I feel it speaks to how the executives of Yelp really do believe in the integrity of their review guidelines.
As for reviews being deleted, I can tell you that in many of those instances, the review has been put in a "purgatory" where the system waits until it receives a signal that the review is not actually spam to let it surface back up to users. This happens to both positive and negative reviews; there is no scam going on here to hide negative reviews for businesses that pay and positive reviews for businesses that don't.
Why isn't Yelp more transparent about this process and their algorithm? For the same reason Google isn't transparent about their algorithm - to prevent gaming the system.
With the frequently repeated story of business owners being told that their negative reviews will be removed, I believe it comes down to a misunderstanding of the sales pitch (the majority of the time). One of the key points of the sales pitch involved moving a positive review to the top of the review order where a positive review would stay for the duration of the contract. This was especially effective for completing a sale if there was a negative review on top ("the first review your customers see will always be a positive one"). So if a business became a Yelp advertiser, the review order would change, but only with that one review that was moved to the very top. No reviews were deleted or otherwise manipulated.
Why do I believe it's a misunderstanding on the business owner's part far more often than a mistaken or even purposeful effort by the Account Executive? For one, Yelp is pretty damn serious about their rep and will fire anyone caught doing this on purpose right away. Also, Yelp's training was good when I was there and has become phenomenal since I left so I don't see many mistakes happening. Finally, and I'm not going to butter this up, there are a LOT of business owners out there who don't understand the web and plenty who are just plain dumb (Just because you own a business, doesn't mean you should). the majority of businesses we called are one off restaurants/bars (just look at the majority of restaurant websites), little retail stores or one man service shops.
Yelp is about the customer first and businesses second; because of this, there are always going to be business owners who feel screwed. With all that said, though, I feel that this latest lawsuit speaks to a huge problem that is only going to get bigger for Yelp as it gets closer to an IPO unless they significantly change their business pitch.
The complaint alleges one actual incident of alleged wrongdoing, most occurring within the past few weeks. The rest of the allegations are based entirely on complaints reported in news accounts, meaning that the plaintiff's lawyers basically pasted hearsay statements into their legal document. When this is coupled with the fact that their entire legal theory of the case consists of three paragraphs alleging violation of California's unfair competition law, Bus. & Prof. Code 17200, I think it is fair to say that this filing is pretty superficial.
The complaint alleges that "negative reviews would be removed or relocated" for the benefit of advertisers but waters this down by saying "or those pages would otherwise be favorably manipulated, including through [the advertiser's] own input or control." This allegation would literally be true in light of Yelp's business practice (as you put it) of allowing an advertiser to move one favorable review to the top of the review order but, though true, may also be irrelevant unless it is first determined whether the particular business practice of moving one review up is in itself illegal. The remaining allegation that advertisers were threatened is also hedged with the qualifier "implicitly or expressly," which may mean that no overt threats were made and may (of more significance to the class action issue) involve scattered incidents as opposed to company-sanctioned policy.
This story has been out for about a year. Within the very recent past, Yelp just raised another $25M from sophisticated investors. Those investors certainly looked into these issues deeply in due diligence (including the legal issue whether moving one favorable review to top position violated unfair competition laws) and yet still felt comfortable investing. My guess is that this fact suggests that the practices engaged in here were not so systematic as to constitute company policy. Such practices, if they did exist at that systematic level, would be far too easy to expose, if nothing else simply by getting statements from former Yelp employees. Investors are not stupid and would almost certainly have not invested in that type of extreme situation.
This would suggest a flawed sales pitch, as you mention, rather than systematic malevolent company policy. If that guess is right, then Yelp will likely have to change that pitch and may even have to pay out nuisance money in time to settle this action. But it will likely not be more than that. And that is probably the calculus the investors took into account in deciding to plunk their $25M into Yelp in recent weeks.
A lawsuit, of course, must stand or fall on its own merits, but the surface indicators here suggest that this is a comparatively weak case and not a strong one.
That's probably enough to give this case legs. IANAL but have been party to an unfair business practices lawsuit, and it's very easy to step in it.
Yelp doesn't remove reviews and reviews themselves aren't modified; simply one positive review is moved to the top. You could argue that by moving the positive review to the top, that in turn modifies the order of other reviews (positive and negative), but seems like very shaky ground for the case to stand on. Of course, I'm no lawyer, so take this all with a grain of salt.
Or are you pointing out the loose quote I posted ("the first review your customers see will always be a positive one") is what will give the case legs?
For instance rumor is 70%+ of clicks on google go to the top 5 results.
"Give us money or bad things will happen" is a shakedown, regardless of whether bad things can or will happen.
There very easily could be an exception, especially with the number of Account execs they have right now, but it's clear from the very start of training to making actual calls that such actions will not be tolerated.
It would be very easy to avoid these types of accusations if they just recorded the sales calls, or even recorded just one side of the sales calls (to avoid recording the other person - Skype extensions can do this easily enough).