Swan Island's only new restaurant, Tilt, has a Yelp problem.

Tilt breakfast sandwich: Unfiltered deliciousness.
  • Tilt breakfast sandwich: Unfiltered deliciousness.

Although professional reviews of the "handcrafted food" diner have been positive, the first Google hit for the fledgling restaurant is their Yelp page, where the reviews are not great—mostly, they complain about the place's price.

That's frustrating for Tilt owner Octavian Jurj, because he can see that there are many positive reviews of his restaurant that customers wrote, but aren't published on the visible Yelp site. The way Yelp filters their reviews is an issue a lot of business owners complain about—but many people who use Yelp assume they're seeing all the reviews customers have written. Numerous people have complained about Yelp's arcane review filtering process and some business owners have documented Yelp offering to improve their reviews, for a price. Two groups actually filed class action lawsuits against Yelp, claiming extortion, but they were unable to dig up court-worthy evidence of the practice and the suits were dismissed last year. This isn't just about someone finding a good cheeseburger—restaurant's online image can really impact their sales, especially if they're new in town, like Tilt.

Here's how the review filtering works in Tilt's case: When he first opened, Jurj asked some customers to write reviews and was surprised to see they never made it on the public site. Now, on Tilt's Yelp page are four five-star reviews, one four-star review, three three-star reviews, and three one-star reviews, all of which add up to a relatively dismal three-star rating for Tilt overall. Meanwhile, not factoring into their public presence on the site are 23 "filtered reviews," all of which are four or five stars and none of which Yelp will publish.

Things went downhill two weeks ago, says Jurj, when he got a call from a Yelp sales person. According to Jurj, the staffer asked if Titl wanted to participate in Yelp's click-based ad program and then pay to remove competitor ads from their Yelp page. "I responded by asking her, 'Why would I want to drive more traffic to our Yelp page when you guys have removed all of our positive reviews?'" wrote Jurj, in an email to the Mercury. "Her response: 'Well, if you buy enough ads, we can take care of those negative reviews.' I freaked out."

Yelp says it filters reviews to make sure they're legit—there are lots of people who get paid to write fake positive reviews of businesses. The automated algorithm to filter reviews is secret. But it does try to not publish reviews that may have been encouraged by the business owner, so some of Jurj's reviews may have disappeared ironically because he asked customers to consider reviewing the business to improve its Yelp image. Yelp also says the secret algorithm has nothing to do with who pays for advertising.

"There is no amount of money business owners can pay Yelp to manipulate reviews and our filter does not punish those who do not advertise," says Yelp spokesperson Kristen Whisenand, via email. As for the call Jurj received from a Yelp rep about click-thru services, says Whisenand, "Yelp sells display and search advertising to local businesses and there is no connection between this advertising and reviews."

For now, it seems like Jurj—and other business owners in his situation—are stuck with a poor online image. If Yelp's algorithm is honest and Jurj's burgers stay as good as this paper's food editor thinks they are, the positive reviews should outnumber the negative ones over time. Hopefully, Tilt is able to stay afloat until then.