The Fundamental Flaw Of Yelp’s Solicited Review Stance

by · October 23, 201238 comments

Ratings and reviews are an incredibly important resource for consumers online. Sites like Yelp and Urban Spoon convince diners to eat, or not eat, at restaurants every day. Other resources like Google Places, CitySearch, Angie’s List, TripAdvisor and more help people make purchase decisions on everything from vacations to plumbers and beyond.

According to most recent data from The Social Habit, online review sites were the second-most important resource for consumers considering a purchase behind the company’s website. As a result, smart marketers are paying closer attention to where they are reviewed, how many positive or negative reviews are there and how and when they, as a brand, can respond to them.

One such site, Yelp, has seemed to always have an air of controversy around its business practices. In late 2009 and early 2010, Yelp was alleged to be extorting businesses prioritizing negative reviews for businesses that didn’t advertise and intentionally ignoring those businesses when they have a legitimate concern. To this day, Yelp still has a stance — though I am unable to confirm it is actual policy — that businesses should not encourage their customers to post reviews.

In the site’s Q&A, for the question of, “Should I ask customers to write reviews for my business?” the site says:

Probably not. It’s a slippery slope between the customer who is so delighted by her experience that she takes it upon herself to write a glowing review and the customer who is “encouraged” to write a favorable review in exchange for a special discount. And let’s be candid: most business owners are only going to solicit reviews from their happy customers, not the unhappy ones. Over time, these self-selected reviews create intrinsic bias in the business listing — a bias that savvy consumers can smell from a mile away. Don’t be surprised, then, if your solicited reviews get filtered by Yelp’s automated review filter.

While I get where Yelp might be coming from — they only want organic, genuine reviews — they put the business owner on the defensive and assume far too much in how businesses actually operate. Here are the fundamental flaws of the company’s perspective:
  1. They assume businesses are encouraging customers to write positive reviews
  2. They assume businesses are encouraging customers with incentives
  3. They assume competitors aren’t encouraging bad reviews of other businesses (or don’t care if they are)
  4. They assume encouraging reviews would create “intrinsic bias” which is actually null and void if you consider points 1 and 2 may be inaccurate.
  5. They seem to assume that reviews are inherently bad or there’s some 50/50 split in good-to-bad reviews in general, thus inserting an intrinsic bias in their own approach. As we’ve discovered before in instances like banks and bank products, online sentiment about brands is inordinately positive.

They say, “And let’s be candid: most business owners are only going to solicit reviews from their happy customers, not the unhappy ones.” While incredibly condescending and presumptuous, this opinion leads the company to seem to prohibit encouragement of reviews at all? Why not say, “We’d love for you to encourage people to review you on Yelp, but feel strongly you should encourage them only to review, not ask for positive reviews?”

They don’t allow for the business owner that genuinely wants broad feedback. They don’t allow for a business owner who might not incentivize a review. Worst of all, they, in effect, prevent use of their own site. If business owners simply said, “We’d love for you to review us on Yelp!” my guess is that Yelp’s traffic and site usage would go up.

I received an email from a business I used recently asking me if I had a good or bad experience with them. It was a simple email survey with two big “Good” and “Bad” buttons in the body. I clicked “Good” because I had a good experience. It took me to Yelp in an effort to push me to share my good experience there. When I clicked “Bad” it opened an email window so I could talk directly to the business about my experience.

From Yelp’s perspective, this particular business’s use of the email survey is not in the spirit of their stance. And I agree that the “Bad” button leading not to Yelp but somewhere else is not in the spirit of providing balanced and genuine reviews on their site. But the fact the email sends people to Yelp in the first place is technically a violation of the spirit Yelp has emulated with regard to encouraging customer reviews.

Yelp is saying, “Don’t encourage people to use our site,” while at the same time saying, “Buy ads on our site and respond to the people who do use it.”

In whose per view is this a smart way to do business?

In my humble opinion, Yelp should continue to provide door stickers and collateral to the businesses that register with the site (Ironic they do this, isn’t it?), but include a little “Tell Us How We Did On Yelp!” line or similar to encourage people to review that business. They should also encourage businesses to encourage reviews, only in a fair and balanced spirit. “Tell us how we did. Yelp makes that easy. We’d love your feedback there.”

If they do this, then Yelp will stop underestimating the intelligence and ability of the business owners it both serves and relies upon for its revenue.

What are your experiences with Yelp, especially as a business? Do you encourage reviews? Do you respond to negative ones? Tell us more about how you use Yelp. The comments are yours.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://twitter.com/cksyme Chris Syme

    Having a client that was a victim of Yelp’s selective filtering policy recently opened my eyes to how subjectively they enforce their policies. From a business standpoint, I think they are shooting themselves in the foot–it was obvious for anyone that knew my client’s situation that all the consumer reviews claiming to have legitimate interactions with my client were from places they have no stores and were posted right around the date of  a negative article on Reddit (which has no filtering policy). I’m okay with Yelp cracking down on businesses that are trying to game them, but how about consumers that are doing the same. It just hurts Yelp in the long run.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Interesting, Chris. Feel free to drop a link to any further info on your case study. Yelp has never been 100% above board with how they do things, at least from a perception stand point. It might be good for us to collect a resource here for folks to know what they’re dealing with, or perhaps to have Yelp officials come and address some of these issues.

    • http://www.oceanmediallc.com/ Bryan Howland

      I know exactly what you mean about Yelp’s selective filtering process. A competitor from a past job of mine had 4.5 stars on Yelp and a ton of glowing reviews. However, if you clicked on Filtered Reviews (and entered a Captcha – which itself is nothing more than a way to dissuade people from reading these reviews) you would see review after review calling this company out for some shady business practices. The star rating for this company, if the filtered reviews were counted, would’ve dropped to 2.5. These reviews were all legitimate and many were from long-time Yelpers with an established history on the site. Could it be that is was just a unfortunate part of Yelp’s algorithm or did the fact this company was advertising on Yelp have anything to do with it? Impossible to say, but suspicious at the very least. 

  • Debi

    I am so happy people are getting hip to Yelp’s shady business practices. I had many reviews on there and after reps from Yelp tried several times to get me to advertise with them and I said no, my reviews, which were legit and awesome, were filtered out. I have never offered a discount for a review, but I have asked my clients to write a review, good or bad, all of have been good!  The last time I got a sales call from Yelp, I shared my feelings about their shady practices & of course I got their usual  “algorithm”

    story, which I still feel is a line of crap. They also said if a consumer has not reviewed at least 3 businesses, they aren’t considered legit…does this even make sense? Many people have not even heard of Yelp and try to write an honest review, only to be filtered. Many of my filtered reviews were written by big time Yelpers…I do receive calls from those who find me on Yelp, and I may get more if I advertised with them but I simply refuse to buy into their ways. It’s bad enough that they put your competitors ad on your space,) and usually, those are with people who are paying for their advertising). It’s just bad business in my mind. Thanks for the article!

  • http://www.moderninsider.com/ Ted Sindzinski

    I encourage many businesses to solicit reviews to third party sites both those I’ve worked for and those I do business with as a customer. And I write many myself… I want good providers to thrive & bad ones to have public feedback.

    What irks me about this sort of suggestion is that it ignores the reality of how humans work. Any bad experiences drives a strong desire to act and any business can have a bad moment, a bad employee, etc. On the other hand out for a positive or just neutral customer there’s little organic reaction unless the person has either a contributor or sharer attitude already. Thus the system, in this case Yelp, ends up with so few data points that’s in effective.

    For example I moved and needed a dentist but despite hundreds of listings in my immediate area none were above 4 stars, most were reviewed 2-3 times and all negative. That’s not because all the dentists where I live are terrible but because who rates their dentist on Yelp?

    3 months after finding my new provider and entirely on their own accord they’ve started soliciting reviews with a cheesy, cheaply done card that everyone gets. There’s less bias in that approach than in waiting to see who takes action on their own but t your example, soliciting is ripe for influencing and that’s exactly why Yelp should be involved providing the cards, adding the sticker so they can insure control. 

    Professionally I’ve found is that when you’re biased in how you request a review it reduces response, even turns reviews negative. Change the wording to something more neutral ["we want your opinion, good, bad or indifferent"] and the response rate goes up. Logically more of these reviews are going to be positive because if the majority of customers hate the business it probably wouldn’t be around or won’t be soon.

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  • Layla What a Bauder!

    Only problem is, you send your customers and only the active Yelpers reviews are displayed. The extortion is real, dont send anyone to Yelp. Send them to Google who is more fair and whose listings are actually viewed exponentially more. The Google + implications are far beyond anything yelp will ever do.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks for the input Layla.

  • http://oziomedia.com/productreviews Ozio Media

    It seems a bit short sighted of Yelp to think
    that businesses will not try to leverage their happy customers for a good
    review. Rather than taking the less practical approach of trying to sort the
    genuine good reviews from the solicited reviews which will ultimately penalize
    those businesses that really are attracting favorable remarks, they should be
    encouraging users of Yelp to leave their honest opinions by offering them some
    sort of reward for taking the time to comment in general.

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  • Tone

    I gave a highly favorable review to a local merchant and it was filtered. The review was factual, really all I did was describe my experience and highlight the things I liked. I have dozens of reviews on Yelp and to my knowledge this is the only one filtered. It happened to be my *first* Yelp review and I gave the business 5/5 so perhaps that is what triggered their screening apparatus.

    I went so far as to write to Yelp about it and never received a reply, and the review is still filtered out. Oh well, as another commenter said, Google gets more views so when I feel the need to leave feedback good or bad, I go there now. I rather doubt Yelp’s long term chances.

  • frank

    You are dead on. As a business owner Yelp is a shit bag servive for pussy’s and trolls

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  • simpleERB

    Before Yelp existed my bank used to have a line at the end of every communication, “Liked your service? Tell your friends? Disappointed? Let me know so I can fix it” (Managers name).

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  • Lily

    pervue, not “per view”

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  • Wolves Kill Sheep

    total BS Yelp took away all my legit reviews that got “filtered” as not recommended