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Is Yelp Still Strong-Arming Merchants?



For years the complaints about Yelp’s “sales” tactics have been heard. Maybe I am just not paying attention but I thought that had gone away to some extent. Now with Yelp going public and all the positive vibes flying around about the company as an investment it may get even harder to find the reality.

That is until I read this article at SFGate.com entitled “A 1-star, unfiltered user review of Yelp”. It’s written by restauranteur, Bob Larive, whose Fior d’Italia has been around for 125 years so they must be doing something right. He states

As a longtime restaurateur active in the industry and previous board member of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, the California Restaurant Association and the National Restaurant Association, I think the way Yelp treats businesses and Yelp users doesn’t bode well for it.

OK so he sounds like many of the merchants we hear of regarding the service. He continues

Yelp reviews of my restaurant, Fior d’ Italia, are a perfect example of the flaws in the Yelp system. The Fior has been around for 125 years and has been successful because of great food and service. But if you look at the Fior Yelp site today, the restaurant has 218 posted reviews averaging 2 1/2 stars, with many terrible one-star reviews.

What you don’t see (unless you look hard for them) are the 115 “filtered reviews,” which average out to a ranking of more than four stars. That is a current problem for the Fior, and in the long term, a problem for Yelp.

It’s this next quote, though, that brings up images of the old Yelp that supposedly doesn’t exist or, according to Yelp themselves, has never existed at all.

Over the past year, I have attempted to get some clarity and assistance from Yelp. I have had no success except that its sales staff has repeatedly advised that if we would only advertise with them, they could “help us.”

We believe that is extortion.

Just a quick question to each one of us. If this accusation had been leveled at Google do you think there would be an uproar of epic proportions? I do. For some reason Yelp is able to continue using these tactics and even go public while doing so.

Something doesn’t seem right, does it? Larive claims this is happening with other merchants as well. I guess my question is why there isn’t some concern about this business tactic from the likes of lawmakers who are constantly trying to nail Google for unfair practices?

Yelp’s CEO, Jeremy Stoppelman, was even on Capitol Hill testifying against Google with regard to Google’s practices meanwhile, back in the Yelp offices, their sales team was holding business owners hostage with the “We can help you with our free service if you pay us!” routine?

I have no ax to grind with Yelp. However, if this is true Yelp should step back and look at their model as should investors who are now placing their bets that Yelp is a real business and not one that is playing the old Mafia game of paying for protection.

Your thoughts?

UPDATE – We heard from Yelp regarding this post with the following response from Chantelle Karl, Sr. Public Relations Manager at Yelp.com

I caught your article this afternoon as a result of the restauranteur-contributed piece in the Chron and wanted to clear up a few of the misconceptions made.

First, there has never been any amount of money you can pay Yelp to manipulate reviews and claims to the contrary have been repeatedly thrown out of court. Users can check out any advertiser’s page on Yelp to see for themselves that our review filter works the same for advertisers and non-advertisers alike.

Since our inception in 2004, we have had an automated review filter in place that works to protect consumers and business owners from fake, shill or malicious reviews. We understand that it is not a perfect system – some legitimate content might get filtered and some illegitimate content might make it through – but our product team is always working to improve it. And while the filter sometimes raises frustrations, it is this high cost that we’ve chosen to accept because we know the infinitely higher cost would be to not have an algorithm in place at all. In fact, business owners shared with us just yesterday what the filter means to them and their business.

Lastly, for four years now, we’ve had a way for businesses to respond publicly and privately to reviews (amongst a host of other tools like traffic & analytics) all for free: biz.yelp.com. Yelpers have also shared what it means to them as a consumer when business owners engage.

I hope this helps clarify our policies and the systems we have in place to protect both business owners and consumers.

  • Jeff

    I’m a Web Professional that when I saw this post had to add my comment because I’m also a very very frequent Yelp user. I use it all the time for both local businesses and use it while on vacation or visiting other cities. I use to be a Zagat user but have found Yelp to be an adequate free replacement.

    The question is really, are the average ratings accurate? Any user-powered rating system will always have its flaws. But, I can say for several years of personal experience using Yelp to look up hundreds of businesses, the ratings have been very accurate and jived with my personal experiences at the business. It’s not perfect. At times I have suspected some attempts by insiders or competitors to manipulate the system, but in the end, as more and more reviews are posted, it typically averages out to a fairly accurate rating.

    So this article was a bit surprising and makes me wonder if there is some sort of behind the scenes relationship going on that has caused someone to have an axe to grind.

    • http://www.frankthinking.com Frank Reed

      @Jeff – That is always a possibility. We have received some feedback from Yelp which has been added to the post. I have also asked another question which I may or may not hear back on but when I do I will update further.

      As noted in the post I have no ax to grind but this kind of accusation is not new and honestly the response from Yelp doesn’t address the possibility that salespeople are using this “technique” on businesses. It also is by no means a definitive yes that this is something that is truly happening. Maybe this restauranteur is using the Chronicle as a way to strike out at the review site. The online world creates a fair amount of “he said, she said” for sure.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  • Glenn T

    ANNOUNCEMENT:

    We have recently implemented a system to outsmart yelp from hiding our filtered reviews:

    Step 1- first of all, if you’re advertising with yelp, stop doing so and shift that money to optimize your own web site instead

    Step 2- have a graphic designer make a yelp badge that is placed on your web site. It should say “we have …… filtered and unfiltered reviews on yelp”. 

    Step 3- when a visitor clicks on the badge, it will go to another page ON YOUR OWN WEB SITE (instead of going to yelp’s. (why help them get traffic and rank higher anyways)? 

    Step 4- on this page have your graphic designer get a screen capture (picture) of all your filtered and unfiltered reviews and have them pasted together onto one page.

    Now, all your reviews (filtered or not) will be visible to all your web site visitors. 

    5- put a note on the top that says, “for your convenience we have placed all our filtered and unfiltered reviews on one page to see. If you’d like to go to our live yelp page, click here …………”

    Make the whole page clickable to your live yelp page  so no-one will say you’re trying hide something or to be dishonest 

    Advantages of doing this: 

    1- your visitors will stay on your web site instead of being directed to yelp’s

    2- your visitor can’t click on your competitors 

    3- no more being a slave to yelp’s algorithm

    4- yelp would not benefit from getting traffic from you and higher rankings on google 

    5- this whole process cost us less than $150 to implement 

    Just be sure to shift that $300 per month on yelp advertising and put it into KEYWORDS that people will search for. 

    Please pass this along

  • mark

    first, one can see the filtered reviews of fior d’italia on their site. look at them. almost all of them are five-star reviews from people with one or two reviews total. is it that hard to believe that these reviews might be fake?

  • Edward

    Our business is “By Appointment Only,” but unlike, say, a doctor’s office, we provide a specialized art and design service for an affluent demographic. Our clients do not reside in a single zip code. As such, is not the type of business with day to day patronage and daily traffic. It is certainly not retail.

    Though we do not fit the Yelp business profile, we have endured a one star negative rant from a person who was never a client of our firm. The person incorrectly described our business, and placed our company within the wrong category. Getting Yelp to change this description proved daunting.

    We should note that our negative reviewer has only written two Yelp reviews, the last being ours at the end of August. (Irony of ironies, the other review by this reviewer is a restaurant three star write up. That one has been screened. Go figure.)

    Still, if any interested person who might Google our name bothered to read the review, one can see the reviewer is, well, for lack of a better word, “off.”

    When we drew this review to Yelp’s attention they mulled the review over and concluded it was legit. I could be wrong but I thought I heard the squeak of a Ouji board in the back ground. .

    So we dutifully filled out the business profile, responded politely to the critic, and pretty much did those things Yelp suggested.

    Yet the review persisted. And so did the wrong business description, despite our emails to Yelp. So, we wrote Yelp again and they agreed to fix it–which they did–and also suggested we engage customers and maybe even use our Yelp business listing to offer “Yelpers”special deals”. This, they added, might attract business and better reviews.I wondered, “What kind of special deal, like what? Take $2,500 off your next consult?”

    But you can see here that they are seeking to get you into the Yelp net and participate.

    One issue for legit businesses which may not fit the Yelp profile is how Yelp optimizes: Yelp reviews rise to the top of a Google search. Invariably the Yelp reviews sit immediately above or below the business’s web site. That might be useful for surfers seeking a restaurant, nail salon, spa or retailer.

    In our case, it’s silly. But the good news is that since we are well known and have an excellent reputation and do not rely on “side walk traffic,” this absurd review has caused many who use both Yelp and our company to question Yelp’s usefulness.

    It has become a bit of a joke in the art community, and within entertainment circles the world is enjoying a bit of comedic relief. To other businesses, however, a bad Yelp review may not be funny at all.

    The saga had an amusing twist recently. Our business has strong seasonal skews and attracts customers outside of our zip code–from both coasts and Europe. So when several clients, using Google to circle back to our site, saw the old Yelp one star negative review, a few decided to offer their experiences. They are not heavy Yelp reviewers, but average 20-35 Yelp reviews.

    Guess what? All of these positive reviews have been screened.

    I am glad Yelp responded to your article. I am still waiting for them to answer why these positive reviews have been screened and why the one star review by a veritable non Yelper prevails.

    I could be wrong but I imagine Yelp feels it is in their best interest to keep a single negative review up and running, even if the negative reviewer is not a regular Yelper. In that way, perhaps they can coax businesses to engage Yelpers to review their business, and at some point they may convince that business to advertise.

    I do like the idea offered by one responder who suggested posting the screened reviews on one’s web site. His other ideas, too, were good and useful.

    I’ve enjoyed watching the stock slide since the IPO, especially since the company has not turned a profit since–what has it been–2007? Watching the stock slide has been a bit of fun. Five star fun at that.

  • JH

    I’m a Yelper, and have been for a few years. Dorky hobby, yes. I don’t get paid for it, but I was a journalism major, so it’s a creative outlet of sorts and it helps me discover new places.

    When I first began Yelping, I had zero friends on Yelp, no profile pic and only a handful of reviews. Since I was an unestablished reviewer at that time (by Yelp’s standards), my reviews were filtered out. It was annoying, and I didn’t understand why, until I researched.

    Once I posted a pic, gained friends and began writing more reviews, my initial and subsequent reviews came out of the filter.

    Honestly, good businesses will shine through and those are generally the ones who don’t complain about the Yelp filter. Case in point, just watched Kitchen Nightmares the other night where they profiled a restaurant in LA with bad food and bad owners. They blamed Yelpers. Really? Gordon Ramsey brought the Yelpers onto the show to share their experience. Then Gordon gave them pointers and a new menu, they didn’t listen, and they went out of business. They got legitimate feedback, a free restaurant makeover and advice from an expert. Leaves one scratching their head, doesn’t it?

    The businesses where I’m now a regular and posted reviews and who have 3+ stars have thanked me for review and never mentioned anything about any ‘strong arming.’ I honestly think it’s the minority–the ‘bad’ businesses–who are simply looking for a scapegoat.

  • Glenn T

    Edward,

    Thank you for mentioning you like my ideas. It has worked very well for us. But it’ll only work if the business’s web site is SEO optimized.

    Also I should mention that “yelp” is just a website. I think that instead of criticizing the web site, people should instead criticize the PERSON behind the web site, Jeremy Stoppelman.

    He is not making any changes because psychologically, he is not correlating that the damage yelp is doing is really him.

    Put the heat on him by banning him from entering your business and see what happens. Start naming him instead of using the word “yelp” in your commentaries.

    Good luck,
    Glenn T.

  • http://mullinsfarms.com/ Craig Mullins

    We have the same problem. Although we don’t have any negative or even any with less the four stars… But they keep filtering our reviews…

    Then a sales agent called me. I wasn’t interested in advertising with them. The next day my account was temporally disabled until I fixed some minor mistakes in the copy on the yelp profile.

  • Josh

    I found a new site, that I feel has a better system in place. They reward reviewers for simply placing a review (and they can only place a review if they have been there and received a unique code)
    http://www.ratediary.com

  • Restaurant Owner

    Unfortunately he is 100% right. Your positive reviews get filtered unless you pay them a minimum of $300-350 a month for advertising. It’s a known fact in the restaurant industry. The minute you don’t renew your contract, your positive reviews get filtered again. I really really hope someone finally gets them to stop with these unfair practices.

  • Pizza Rustica

    I think it unfair that Yelp gets to respond in a professional-style discussion. We as business owners only have the option of responding to an anonymous poster, many of whom are clearly out only to do harm. We are stuck having to take distorted versions of the truth sent out to the general public without the opportunity to clearly state the other side of the story. Here, Yelp gets to have input without the fears we business owners face.