‘I’m like an antitrust pitbull’

Yelp Jeremy Stoppelman
Yelp Jeremy Stoppelman

Jeremy Stoppelman is not afraid of awkward silences. Sitting on his bed in San Francisco, he admits he has sucked the life out of parties on several occasions by bringing up regulation whenever he can.

“I am like an antitrust pitbull,” he says. “People often end up regretting ever saying anything.”

The Yelp founder’s favourite topic is back in fashion this summer as Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google wait to hear whether Washington wants to break them up.

Mr Stoppelman’s firm, a review website that has become a fundamental part of dining in the US because of its waitlist and reservation service, has been fighting Google for more than a decade.

You could say that the Texan’s crusade against the search giant began in 2004, when he and co-founder Russel Simmons launched their business after Stoppelman was left struggling to find a good doctor after falling ill with the flu while studying at Harvard. The pair had come into some money after PayPal – where Stoppelman was in charge of engineering – was bought by eBay for $1.5bn (£1.1bn).

Stoppelman had been hired by a scrappy 28-year-old named Elon Musk whose “nerd humour was like catnip for engineers”. It cemented his place among the so-called “PayPal mafia” which include Silicon heavyweights such as Musk, Peter Thiel and Reid Hoffman.

Peter Thiel (left) with Elon Musk
Peter Thiel (left) with Elon Musk

The Yelp founder now seems keen to distance himself from some of his ex colleagues – particularly Thiel, who donated to Trump ahead of the 2016 election. “That was very uncomfortable for me,” he says.

Shortly into Yelp’s lifespan came a phone call from Google, asking if the business might be interested in a partnership that would involve reviews appearing on Google’s products in return for traffic. But over the years, that once amicable relationship turned sour.

“They said ‘we’re not trying to collect reviews or anything, we’re just trying to organise the world’s information’,” says Stoppelman, emphasising a faux sincerity. But Stoppelman started to notice that Google Local, now Google Maps, was “starting to look more like a Yelp page recreated with our own content”. He told himself that if Google started collecting its own reviews that would be the point they would pull the plug. When Google declared that they, too would start asking users to write Google reviews, Yelp ended the relationship. Google offered to buy the company; when Stoppelman refused on the advice of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, it continued using Yelp’s reviews anyway.

“We were told if you want to be included in web search you have got to give us the content and if you don’t like it, just take yourself off our search engine by ticking the box that tells Google not to crawl your site at all and then you can disappear from the earth, essentially,” he says. “It was this false choice”.

The 42-year-old, who is running Yelp from home with his wife and nine-month old son, sometimes thinks about what it would be like if he had just said yes to Google.

Yelp founder
Yelp founder

But occasional daydreams aside, he is committed to remaining at the helm of his “small but mighty” company. Yelp has a market cap of $1.7bn compared to Google’s $1 trillion and has brushed fielded accusations of “repeated missteps” from activist investors SQN in 2018. However, it has spent 16 years nipping at Google’s ankles and Stoppelman is used to shrugging off “mean” comments that he is bitter because the search giant beat them to a bigger market.

Yelp has an unusually vocal policy team who work with European and American regulators and are happy to nudge the press in the direction of Google’s failures. Its head of policy is behind a weekly newsletter named “This Week In Google Antitrust” which aggregates a selection of the most damning Google news that week. Yelp’s investment still pales in comparison to the money spent fending off regulation by Google, which has gone as far as funding schools that offer courses to the next generation of watchdogs. “There’s all sorts of wonderful things they do to try and put their thumb on the scales of justice that we don’t,” he says.

Stoppelman says Yelp has historically been in “lonely company” when publicly talking about its experience with Google, but it is not the only one to have suffered from their alleged monopoly. Complaints have also been made to regulators by Tripadvisor and Citysearch, a travel guide that failed to make it out of Silicon Valley. Google has always insisted it plays by the rules.

“Lots of entrepreneurs over the years have kind of come to me quietly and said, ‘Hey, what should I do about this Google?’,” Stoppelman says.

And I would grab their hand and say, ‘come with me, let’s go talk to the regulators’.

“Unfortunately when you have a company as powerful as Google, it’s very hard to speak up. But now the world has come to realise that massive consolidation of power in these tech companies is a societal concern.

“There has been more awareness of how serious this problem is, you know, the 2016 election maybe played a role in waking people up. And so now you do have a small number of prominent entrepreneurs coming out talking about these issues, talking about problems with Google.”

Stoppelman in a more formal setting
Stoppelman in a more formal setting

Yelp has some recognition in the UK and while the service is still operating, it has not sold any advertising since pulling out of Europe in 2016. Stoppelman is adamant that Google is to blame.

“We had communities all over Europe that were generating great content and then one day, Google tweaked its algorithm and our growth just stopped and we were never able to get it going again,” he says.

“After a few more years of experimentation we had to hit pause and we had to let go of our community managers. We had a couple of hundred salespeople that we had to let go.

“That is the real world impact from algorithm tweak, that may have been an anti-competitive tweak designed to make sure that Yelp did not become a force in Europe like it has become in the US”.

Stoppelman says it was not the first time this had happened, but previously when he complained Google apologised and fixed the “glitch”. This time, after he complained, they did not fix it. Google says it regularly refines its algorithm and denies stopping traffic to Yelp’s German website.

But what is the solution? Stoppelman pauses, fiddling with the white EarPods that stick from a head of enviously curly peppered hair as we speak online. Authorities seem unclear too. Google was found by US officials to have acted uncompetitively back in 2009, but was called up to the senate yet again this year for another round of hearings.

The search engine behemoth – whose motto was once “don’t be evil” – is preparing to fight three separate fines totalling €8.2bn from Europe for allegedly favouring its own shopping results over results from rivals, unfairly promoting its own apps on its Android operating system, and blocking adverts from rival search engines.

Yelp filed a complaint with the European Commission in 2014 which came to nothing and again in 2018, the outcome of which is yet to be determined. He describes Competition Commissioner Margarethe Vestager, noted for her more aggressive attitude than her predecessors when it comes to technology companies, as a “pioneer”.

Stoppelman is not planning on giving up the fight anytime soon.

“Someone once brought up the success of [Facebook-owned] Instagram, and I asked them how Instagram managed to get such good distribution. The answer was that they were the number one advertiser on Facebook. So I quickly told them, ‘There’s your monopoly: a social media company using your own advertising.’ That’s like leveraging one monopoly to extend your own.

“People forget I’m in the room sometimes but then they are very quickly made aware of it.”

At least Mark Zuckerberg frequently addresses criticism in public. But Larry Page, the man in control of Google, has not done a press interview since 2015. Instead he installed Sundar Pichai as chief executive of parent firm Alphabet ahead of antitrust hearings this year.

“He [Page] is still pulling the strings,” says Stoppelman.

He still has super voting control of Google and so the fact that he’s completely lost from the narrative is strange. Why can’t we talk to Larry? What is the company hiding? I don’t think letting him entirely off the hook and forgetting that he exists is reasonable.”

Breaking up big tech | Who wants to curb the power of FAANG?
Breaking up big tech | Who wants to curb the power of FAANG?

The FAANGs – Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Google – have certainly tightened their grip during the pandemic, “judging by stock prices,” he says. Alphabet alone is up 20pc since the start of the year, adding almost $190bn to its value.

Mr Stoppelman wonders how much the local businesses championed by Yelp will suffer as a result of surging demand online.

“Will we go back to our old habits?” he says.

“For us there are a lot of activities that are clearly better in person like getting a haircut, which Amazon can’t offer.

“And we are seeing people are eager to get back to that, so that gives me hope that sometime next year, the pandemic may be fully in the rearview mirror”.

Unlike conversations about regulation, he must be hoping that Covid does not end with silence from small business advertisers.

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