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The Internet is calling -- frequently.

Sonoma County business owners are on the receiving end of a marketing blitz by online review site Yelp.com.

The San Francisco-based company has launched an aggressive telemarketing effort to get more advertisers on its site.

Frequent sales pitches aren't new -- as anyone who lets their newspaper subscription lapse knows.

But some business owners feel Yelp's telemarketers have gone too far, and that its salespeople are misleading.

Yelp lets people share their reviews about businesses and has become a popular search tool to find shops and services.

Now some business owners are giving Yelp negative reviews for its sales pitch.

Condra Easley, co-owner of Patisserie Angelica in Sebastopol, said she was told that for $300 a month she could rearrange the reviews about her pastry shop so the bad ones would drop to the bottom.

"If you went with them, then you could put your favorite reviews on top," Easley said. "Now that I know that people can pay to switch things around, I'll go to the bottom to read reviews."

But it is not true. Businesses cannot pay to rearrange reviews, according to Yelp's Web site. If Easley had paid the $300 a month, she would not have been able to rearrange the reviews -- it's worth noting she has received only perfect 5-star reviews to date.

And looking at the review pages of businesses that advertise on Yelp, it's easy to see that bad reviews still appear up high. For instance, Roberto's Italian Restaurant in Santa Rosa advertised with Yelp, and it still had two bad reviews among the top four comments as of last week.

Yet other owners have said they were told the same thing by Yelp's telemarketers.

Duskie Estes, owner of ZaZu Restaurant in Santa Rosa, said she heard the same thing from a Yelp salesperson. Natalie Cilurzo, who owns the Russian River Brewery with her husband, said she was also told that.

"They definitely told me I could rearrange reviews," Estes said.

Yelp did not return calls seeking comment.

The site lets customers share their experiences and rate businesses and services -- giving 1 to 5 stars to everything from last night's dinner to yesterday's visit to the doctor.

The confusion about rearranging reviews might arise from what Yelp does offer. It allows businesses that advertise with it to put one -- and only one -- favorite review at the top, but it is clearly marked as a sponsored review.

Whether Yelp's sales team is misleading owners, or just being misunderstood, the damage is done. The Web site has created a perception problem as people question the validity of its reviews. And that's a major problem for a company in the business of selling information, said Coye Cheshire, a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information.

"Even the presence of this type of allegation can be damaging to the perception of information trustworthiness on a site like Yelp," Cheshire said.

Some owners said reviews have disappeared from their sites, and they worry Yelp is manipulating the reviews to get them to advertise.

Yelp only provides vague information on its site about why certain reviews rank higher than others.

"Review order is determined by a combination of recency and user voting," the Web site states. "Yelp has a system which automatically determines which reviews show for a given business . . . We don't show every review."

It needs to be more clear, Cheshire said.

"They absolutely must be transparent in how reviews are displayed, which ones go away, and why," he said.

Some sites, such as dating sites, keep the method they use to pair people hidden because it's a trade secret. But Yelp needs to ensure people trust it, so keeping it a secret is not a good idea, he said.

"The reason is that a matching algorithm on a dating site is value-added for the user, whereas any kind of non-transparent filtering or reorganization system on a review site such as Yelp is value-added for select companies and Yelp," he said.

The aggressiveness of Yelp's sales team has also turned off owners.

"It's pretty bad," Easley said. "I had to say, 'Look, you're really pissing me off and I'm going to hang up the phone.' And then (the saleswoman) just kept talking. I finally had to hang up."

Obviously, pushy telemarketers aren't new. But it is a relatively new phenomenon coming from an Internet company.

Estes spoke to a sales representative last week, and the very same day another one e-mailed her, writing "I'll be calling you soon about working together."

"Yelp is pretty aggressive," she said.

The company offers a range of advertising options. At the basic level, a business can pay $150 a month to have what the site calls an enhanced profile. It lets a business place a favorite review at the top of its profile, add pictures and announcements, and track the number of people who visit its Yelp profile.

Starting at $300 a month and going up to $1,000 a month, the company will let businesses advertise on the review pages of local competitors. The more a business pays, the more times its advertisement will show up on a local competitor's profile.

Still, not everyone is giving negative reviews to Yelp's efforts to make money and support its highly popular site.

Several businesses in Sonoma County pay to enhance their profile on Yelp.

"So far we've been really pleased with it," said Milly Glazier, manager of M Clothing in Healdsburg. "It's a really great online resource for customers."

And Betsy Prestis, owner of Wee Three Children's Store in Santa Rosa, said Yelp's telemarketers are no more aggressive than others.

"I don't think they are overly aggressive. I think other advertisers are just as aggressive," Prestis said. "Every advertiser will try and sell me the world."

You can reach Staff Writer Nathan Halverson at 521-5494 or nathan.halverson


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