Extortion or free speech? Lawsuits mount

Yelp lawsuits
Yelp lawsuits

As merchants line up to join the lawsuit against Yelp for allegedly downgrading their ratings when they did not advertise, the debate over the import and impact of online reviews has never been more heated. From other online sites touting their more pristine approaches, to merchants insisting that negative reviews can only help -- honest! -- perspectives are as diverse as opinions expressed in the online reviews themselves.

You would expect nothing more, or less, from the Web.

"It's the Wild West out there," Scott Steinberg, head of online consultancy at TechSavvy Global, told WalletPop. "What it really comes down to is there needs to be a better system for policing and controlling reviews."

San Francisco furniture refurbisher Boris Levitt could not agree more. He is among the three businesses that filed suit on March 12, claiming that after he declined to advertise last July, some positive reviews disappeared, giving more weight to one very negative one. His star rating fell and his Web hits plunged. "It was 261, then it was 158, and a couple of months later it was 60 or something like that," Levitt said. "Accordingly, my income went down: 20% down on page views, 20% down on income."