With many restaurants in Tuolumne County reliant on tourists, a few negative reviews can mean the difference between failure and success. It’s likely why so many businesses feel pressured to buy into Yelp’s marketing, said Kaylie Milliken, who has made a movie about Yelp..

“I hope these business owners won't feel so alone. They can know it’s happening across the country and they can band together and do something about it,” Milliken said.

Margie Paxton-Fromm, owner of Legends Books, Antiques and Old Fashioned Soda Fountain, said she is repeatedly called by Yelp employees to pay for advertising. Paxton-Fromm has repeatedly declined, discomforted by the specter of the dreaded one-star review.

“I think they kind of hold us ransom in a way,” she said. “It just seems like you don’t have a recourse.”

Many other businesses owners said they were resistant to the price for Yelp services. With multiple online review venues to manage — including Facebook, TripAdvisor, FourSquare and Google — just paying for Yelp because they had the most persistent marketing team still didn’t seem worth it.

The owner of Yoshoku said she was quoted a cost of $600 to $800 a month for advertising on Yoshoku, a Japanese food and ramen restaurant in downtown Sonora, and Formosa, a bubble tea and boba beverage shop a few doors down. She declined the offer, but was sent a Yelp sticker to commemorate meeting a threshold of five star reviews, she said.

On Yoshoku’s Yelp page, the owner responded to a one-star review, which described a “horrible experience” at the business.

“I did critical analysis on your review and came to reasonable conclusion that you work for Yelp as an account manager,” the owner said. “I know we don’t advertise with you guys but we are already on top 3 search list within several miles of 95370 zip code. You’ve got a lot of explaining to do.”

According to Yelp, Yoshoku is among the highest rated downtown restaurants with four and a half stars.

“I think all small business in Sonora has been affected by Yelp, I can almost guarantee it. That goes from restaurants to preschool,” Milliken said. “A bad review online can completely change the course of your business and to have a negative portrayal is going to be really hard for them.”

Nathan Archibald, 29, a barista at Eighty One - Bakery and Coffee Company, said as a former account executive at Yelp’s corporate office in San Francisco, he knew firsthand the high-pressure marketing strategies the company employed to coerce businesses into advertising.

“I thought I was helping businesses, and in some ways I was, but I would be calling these businesses two or three times a week and some of them don't want to talk. You’re trained to be persistent,” he said.

Archibald said he was required to meet a quota of 100 phone calls per day and log one hour of talk with potential customers. The calls aren’t just made to restaurants, but to dentists, plumbers, auto shops — any place whose services can be reviewed and rated on the site. Regions were colloquially described as “Yelpatories” to emphasize competition among other businesses and the necessity of buying advertising, Archilbald said.

Archibald said he mostly made calls to South Dakota.

“Being from a small town and knowing the culture of a small town, it would be almost pointless to advertise,” he said.

At the time, he still convinced his parents’ Sonora party equipment business, Porter Rents and Sells, to buy a six month advertising package. As the months passed, the business saw a decline in online traffic, but their “cost-per-click” increased. They still had to pay full price for the advertising, Archibald said.

“It just seemed really shady.”

Porter Rents and Sells is now closed, Archibald said.

Than Shwe, owner of Shiro Ninja Japanese Bistro on South Washington Street, said he advertised with Yelp at a cost of $375/month for a year. Shwe planned to let the advertising plan expire at the end of April because the steep cost didn’t result in five-star reviews or a moderation of his Yelp page from what he said were unfair low-star reviews.

“Sometimes they can’t fix the comments,” Shwe said. “It’s not good for business.”

On the Yelp webpage, under a search for “The Best 10 Restaurants near Sonora, CA 95370,” Shiro Ninja Japanese Bistro in downtown Sonora, Seven Sisters at Black Oak Casino in Tuolumne and The Peppery in Sonora and Cover’s Apple Ranch in Tuolumne are all recognized as sponsored posts.

The owner of The Peppery was unavailable on Tuesday, an employee of the restaurant said.

A representative of Seven Sisters did not return requests for comment in time for publication.

Kathleen Liu, a spokesperson for Yelp, said Yelp was unable to provide the names of all the businesses in the 95370 area code who are advertising with the company and on the correlation between purchasing ads and the business benefits.

She said advertising options were clearly marked on the website and appeared above organic search results, and sometimes included photo slideshows.

“There has never been any amount of money a business owner can pay Yelp to manipulate reviews. When a business purchases advertising on Yelp, they get an ad and that’s it,” she said.

Food service businesses in downtown Sonora with Yelp stickers in their front windows include Sonora Joe’s Coffee Shoppe; Yoshoku; Legends Books, Antiques and Old Fashioned Soda Fountain; Eighty One - Bakery and Coffee Company; The Lighthouse Deli; It’s Yo Good, Talulah’s and Taqueria Sonora.

Most all of the businesses contacted by the Union Democrat said they did not pursue advertising plans with Yelp (Talulah’s was closed Monday and Tuesday and an owner could not be reached for comment).

The stickers, business owners said, just showed up in the mail.

An employee at Taqueria Sonora said they received the Yelp certificate on their window — broadcasting “People Love Taqueria Sonora on Yelp!” for 2018 — without solicitation. The back of the sheet reads like an advertisement, inviting the business to claim their online business page and reach out to potential customers.