How Yelp Hurts Small Businesses and What Can Be Done About It
As the owner of a digital marketing and web design company and someone who truly cares about my client’s businesses, I have to warn you in advance that this article is a bit ranty. Yelp has been a thorn in the side of small businesses for over a decade and I’ve been helping clients for almost as long to combat the detrimental effects this company has had on their businesses.
It’s no secret that if your business shows less than a 4-star rating on sites like Yelp and Google, you are losing sales. In fact, a recent study shows that over 80% of consumers look at online reviews before using a business and less than 50% would consider purchasing from a business with less than a 4-star rating. Knowing this information makes the issues I see with Yelp’s control over small business reputations even more urgent.
First, I will address the problems with Yelp and if you’re already all too aware, feel free to scroll to the bottom for some ways to address these issues.
Businesses have no control over whether or not they appear on Yelp.
If you’ve been in business for any amount of time, you’ve likely have had a Yelp profile created in your business’s name. And even if you didn’t set up a Yelp profile for your business, a customer may have added one on your behalf without you knowing. They have many ways of discovering new businesses and adding them to their site without needing to ask for your permission.
Once created, your Yelp business profile cannot be deleted, as they state that your business information is a “matter of public record and public concern”.
Once a profile has been created in your business name, Yelp is given free rein over that business’s reputation as it’s seen on their website. Businesses have no real say in how reviews, photos, or most of the information is displayed on their profile.
Business reviews are filtered with little-to-no transparency.
Their proprietary review algorithm hides reviews with seemingly no rhyme or reason. I can tell you that after reviewing hundreds, if not thousands, of reviews myself, there is no discernable pattern in their review filtering process that is easily recognizable. You will find on some listings a new review from a user with one review will “stick” while a user with 100+ reviews will have their review filtered on the same business listing. From the outside looking the in, the algorithm sure looks like it cares less about the actual review and more about the aggregate business rating.
Extortion claims stem from a lack of transparency and overzealous sales tactics. Many businesses have been utterly harassed by Yelp sales reps, possibly wrongly-promised that their rating would improve with advertising, and/or seen a shift in their overall star-rating after coming in contact with the Yelp sales team. Yelp vehemently denies that they or their salespeople can manually adjust a business’s ratings on their website and to be honest, I believe the accusations stem from a sudden awareness and once again, the fact that Yelp keeps its review filtering algorithm behind lock and key.
Manipulated business listings on Yelp shape public perception of businesses.
If Yelp was to simply show reviews in the order they are received consumers would be given the full picture and left to decide using common sense what is real or spam. Instead, Yelp’s obfuscated review filtering algorithm manipulates a business’s aggregate rating and most consumers are none the wiser. Many people don’t even realize that Yelp filters reviews, much less realize that those filtered reviews impact the overall business rating.
In a world where people consume headlines without taking the time to read the full source material, you can be sure that people are seeing the aggregate rating and not looking much further. If they do, they will find that yelp also sorts reviews based upon a sorting algorithm. While short attention spans are a problem with society at large, Yelp is not helping matters by providing a curated, partial snapshot of a business’s reputation.
Yelp’s sales tactics are borderline harassment.
It would perhaps be one thing if Yelp were just offering straight-up advertising. You know, place an ad on a search results page on their website so that when someone is seeking, let’s say a local plumber, they would see your business appear first. And while they do in fact offer this as a service, this innocuous way of advertising is only a small fraction of the offerings their salespeople will hound you to buy. In fact, over the years, Yelp has become the gold standard in terms of disturbing sales strategies that border harassment.
Starting in 2020, Yelp upped the ante and started algorithmically sorting photos on business profiles. These photos show in a large gallery at the top of the page on the desktop version of the website and in a highly-visible gallery on the mobile versions. The trouble with this is that oftentimes and somehow, seemingly by osmosis, the most unflattering photos end up as the first photos a person sees. And you guessed it, there is only one way to adjust how these photos appear – buy an upgrade.
And don’t for a moment think that if you buy an upgrade it will stop the calls. In fact, many business owners report that the harassment to spend more money will continue. And if you cancel? Yeah, forget about it.
For more on Yelp’s sales strategies, oddities relating to advertising, and what other business owners have to say about Yelp, I highly recommend you watch the documentary “Billion Dollar Bully“.
What can a business do to combat negative reviews on Yelp?
If your business has negative reviews and you feel like you’ve been harmed by Yelp’s business practices, you are in no way alone. In fact, thousands of complaints have been filed with the FTC against Yelp, mostly by business owners.
Even so, it doesn’t look like much is happening that would force Yelp’s hand on the matter. You may also want to contact the FTC and file a complaint or reach out to your state legislators. However, in the meantime, you will need to decide how to approach the issue because ignoring it won’t make it go away.
Know what you’re up against
Yelp demands that you play by their rules… or what? Well, if you, let’s say, get caught soliciting reviews, you may be stuck with a big fat “consumer warning” on your business listing. They use scary-sounding language to try and deter you from asking happy customers to leave a review and their “terms of service” essentially states that you will not be allowed to access (or edit) your business listing if you break their rules.
Knowing these things, you’ll need to decide if you’re willing to risk the potential repercussions associated with directly soliciting reviews from customers. In the past, I’ve spoken with businesses who felt they had to take the risk to save their dying business – they saw it as having nothing to lose. I know of others who just don’t care what Yelp’s rules are and have taken matters into their own hands. No matter how you decide to address the issue, know it will take time to fix a negative reputation on Yelp.
Fix legitimate issues and reply to all reviews
Be honest with yourself. If a customer is calling you out for something you genuinely did wrong, you should reach out to them directly (you can do this on Yelp if you can’t find them in your database) and try to resolve the matter. Once the matter is resolved, ask the customer to update their review.
Not all customers are right and some can’t be made happy. It’s still important that you publicly respond to these negative reviews, moreso for other potential customers who will be reading into how you respond when something doesn’t go right. This is very important. Don’t leave reviews lingering with no response or onlookers will think that you don’t care to solve problems when they arise. Also, add a simple thank you to positive reviews. For people who take the time to look through your reviews, this will give the impression that you are on top of customer service.
Flag reviews that go against Yelp’s “Content Guidelines”
Be sure to review their content guidelines before flagging a review for removal (here’s how). Here are a few scenarios where I’ve seen business owners successfully get reviews removed:
- Reviews that contain threats or slurs. If a person is belittling you or an employee, flag it
- Reviews from people who aren’t posting about their own personal experience, but are posting on behalf of another person
- Reviews containing images of other customers faces or personal information, such as receipts
- Reviews that don’t seem to be for your business
- Reviews that “dox” another person by listing their first and last name or other personal details
Make it a no-brainer for customers to reach you with issues
Place your customer service phone number in a visible place site-wide on your website. I recommend also placing a “feedback” or “customer service” link in your navigation menu on your website and include both a phone number, a web form, and even a direct email address of a person they can reach out to. Give people multiple ways to reach you in hopes that they will go to you with problems before they head to Yelp.
An even better, more proactive way to go about this, would be to set up an automatic feedback system that sends a message to each customer immediately after you complete a sale. The message could ask for a simple thumbs up or thumbs down reply. Anyone with a thumb down reply should be responded to in order to see how you can make their experience a positive one.
Even though soliciting reviews is against Yelp’s terms of service, there is nothing wrong with placing a link to your Yelp listing in emails, on your website, or even in printed collateral. As long as you aren’t specifically asking for a review, you aren’t doing anything to break their rules. Those “check us out on Yelp” stickers can help you get reviews if placed in a visible spot near the point of sale.
Do everything you can to be proactive in your customer service strategy and nip bad reviews in the bud so that customers feel heard when there is an issue. If you do this, most times they won’t feel the need to go to Yelp to complain.
Lastly, don’t buy Yelp ads and tell them to stop calling you
Firstly, in my experience, Yelp ads are not a cost-effective way to get new customers. Yelp loves to show you how many “leads” or calls you got from your listing, but the rest of their reporting is extremely opaque. From what I’ve seen, most of the people clicking a link on your business listing would have A. likely found you anyhow via a search engine (because Yelp is in no way more of a resource than Google for finding and researching businesses) or B. are people who already know about you. Second, I cannot recommend that anyone give this company money based upon how they treat small businesses.
Lastly, I highly recommend that the next time you get a call from Yelp you utter this simple phrase: “Put me on the do not call list”. According to a recent business insider article which includes information given to them by Yelp salespeople, this phrase is the only one they will possibly honor to get Yelp to stop calling your business.
If you’re not a business owner you can help, too!
Small businesses are crucial to the economy and our communities. Whether or not we are aware of it, online reviews massively impact these businesses. Not every interaction with a business is going to be a home run in terms of your hopes or expectations. If you feel you’ve been wronged by a business, the first thing you should do is reach out to the actual business owner or manager, whether it be through their website contact form or by phone. Often times, the business owner or management isn’t aware of problems that you may have had and would like the chance to make it right by you. Now, I am not going to say that always will be the case, but you also have the option to never purchase from that business again, as well.
Posting a negative review on Yelp should be a last resort after you’ve exhausted your other options and at least attempted to allow the business to make things right.