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The Bottom Line: Should you believe online customer reviews?

WEST ALLIS -- Consumers can be faced with confusion when turning to online review websites, especially if a business has a good rating on one site and a bad one on another.


West Allis business owner Tim Kruschel says he used to trust reviews on sites like Yelp but no longer does.


After years of toiling in the food service industry, Kruschel's dream, to one day have his own restaurant, came true seven months ago when he opened Big Deal Burgers and Custard in April.


\"I just want customers to be happy,\" said Kruschel.


While his mom and brothers helped with funds, Kruschel says he worked diligently day and night to make a name for his restaurant by focusing on local, fresh not frozen, high-quality food like Angus beef and deli cheeses.


That's why he was sickened to learn his online reputation was being tarnished by reviews he claims are fictitious and malicious.


\"That's what we feel is going on, is someone is targeting us or something,\" said Kruschel. When asked if he had enemies, Kruschel said he had to fire some employees after buying the business and believes he may be impacting sales at other nearby restaurants.


His main complaint is about descriptions of his eatery on Yelp, a website where regular people post reviews that can be seen by millions.


But do consumers really believe such online reviews and use them to influence their purchases?


\"I'm looking for the opinion of people that have tried it before. If I can't find that from people I know, I'll go to people I don't know,\" said Tom Bogadi, regular customer at Big Deal Burgers.


While customers in the restaurant gave the new burger joint kudos, the online reviews varied greatly: Big Deal Burgers has two five-star reviews on Trip Advisor, four out of five stars on Facebook, 6.9 out of 10 on Foursquare, but only two out of five stars on Yelp.


Experts say reviews on Yelp and other sites can make or break a business.


So Kruschel contacted the yelpers who wrote the bad reviews.


He admitted the two who complained about cold fries and not getting combo-meal pricing had valid concerns, but he says three others griping about health issues were made up.


\"The people could not tell us what time they were here, what they had on their order, or what the problem was,\" noted Kruschel.


He says sites like Yelp don't do enough to stop competing business owners from fabricating negative stories.


But Yelp says that's exactly what its special filtering software is supposed to catch, along with fake complimentary descriptions that might come from the owner's family or friends or scathing posts from a disgruntled fired employee.


\"Sometimes it's biased because you can have a customer who may have had a bad experience or a rival owner who may plant something,\" said regular customer Marquis Wilburn.


Big Deal Burgers has 22 yelp reviews -- half positive and half negative -- but only one positive and four negative on the \"recommended\" page that determines the business' rating. The other 17 reviews are hard to find on a separate page or removed.


Yelp says about 75 percent of its reviews display on the recommended page, generally those from established writers with many posts and followers, and about 25 percent are filtered out as less trustworthy and don't count towards the business' rating; they are put on a hidden page you can only accesss through a link at the bottom of the main page of the business.


A small percent are deleted for violating rules, like threatening or harassing language.


But paid advertising is featured prominently.


Kruschel believes his many positive reviews were relegated to the hidden area after he turned down repeated requests from an aggressive Yelp advertising salesperson.


Entrepreneurs like Kruschel have sued Yelp, claiming that they filter out good reviews when a business decides not to advertise, but Yelp has won those suits, though some are still in appeal.


Yelp says on its website that \"businesses cannot pay for favorable treatment.\"


Kruschel says his experience has changed his personal view of online review websites.


\"I don't think I would hold them in as much regard,\" he stated.


Though Yelp refused to provide anyone for a recorded interview, Yelp's senior PR manager Kristen Whisenand told CBS 58 over the phone that \"117 million unique visitors came to our site last month because they trust the content on our site.\"


Kruschel asked Yelp to take down all of his restaurant's reviews -- good and bad -- but Yelp says it won't allow a business to remove its own listing.


The fine print on the Yelp website says its \"filter sometimes affects perfectly legitimate reviews and misses some fake ones.\"


Another popular review website, Angie's List -- which charges consumers to see ratings -- also revealed, in the fine print of its final prospectus for the company's initial public offering: \"We cannot guarantee the accuracy of our reviews.\"


If you have a story you'd like us to investigate, send an email to dmoca@cbs58.com.


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