Yelp Reviews – Battling for your Brand

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Local business review site Yelp (YELP) is embroiled in a legal fight with a Virginia-based cleaning company.

Potentially at stake: the ability for people to leave anonymous reviews without having their identities uncovered by an angry company owner.

Joe Hadeed of Hadeed In-Home and Office Cleaning Services allegedly found a string of negative reviews in 2012 that he blamed for a 30 percent drop in work, according to The Wall Street Journal. In a case headed to the Virginia Supreme Court, Hadeed is suing seven anonymous negative reviewers and insisting that Yelp identify them.

negative-comments-on-yelpHadeed told The Wall Street Journal that the bad reviews—at least seven of which he believes are fraudulent—sank his business by 30 percent. A spokesperson for Yelp told the Journal that the company gets approximately six subpoenas a month, some demanding information about reviewers’ identities.

State courts have sided with Hadeed and held Yelp in contempt for not providing the names. Yelp argues that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the reviews and the rights of the people who placed them to remain anonymous.

In reviewing Hadeed’s Yelp account, there has been an effort to reply to and address each current complaint, although the responses are a bit “canned.” At Firestorm, we know that this and similar types of reputation battling, takes significant labor to respond to and manage. It is little wonder then, that responses may seem pre-scripted, as time may not allow for a more personalized response. Pre-scripted responses also mitigate the risk of an angry or emotional response by the business owner.  Given that, it is still best to bring a bit more personalization into the response process, but please don’t cross in to Amy’s Baking Company land. (See: Amy’s Baking Company – Biggest Social Media Firestorm Ever?).

Yelp also aggressively pursues those businesses that purchase or sell fake positive reviews. One simply wishes that they would apply the same enthusiasm to those posting fake negative ones.

In February of 2014, Yelp gave itself a big ole’ pat on the blog in this regard:

“As a consumer, would you want to know if someone was trying to mislead you? We know we would. This is exactly why we introduced our Consumer Alerts program back in 2012: to warn people when we see brazen attempts to manipulate ratings and reviews – either by purchasing or incentivizing people for positive reviews or writing a bunch of reviews from the same IP address (a helpful indicator that they may lack authenticity). While our recommendation software does a great job weeding out unreliable reviews so you don’t have to, our investigation team is also always on the job. Yesterday we issued a new round of Consumer Alerts warnings in connection with a handful of businesses.”

“We normally remove alerts after 90 days, but we won’t hesitate to renew them if we continue to see suspicious activity. That’s exactly what happened for two businesses this time around. We again found something amiss with two of the locations for Chicago-based nail salon, Azure Nails. And someone was caught red-handed yet again trying to buy reviews for Evergreen Carpet Cleaning in Los Angeles.” (Read the full Post here)

YelperHowever, in their own FAQs, their response to fake negatives postings is lukewarm:

What if a review is completely false? Can I say so?

“Sure, though we always recommend trying to resolve issues through private messaging first. If you feel a public comment is necessary, present your case as simply and politely as possible, and do not attack the reviewer under any circumstances. Remember that potential customers will be reading your comment and you want to leave them with a positive impression of your business.”

A fake poster out to hurt your business is most likely not going to stop because you sent them a pleasant, direct message request to do so.  Even if you do achieve the aim of stopping the negative reviewer, the original reviews will stay unless the reviewer agrees to delete or amend them.

Yelp’s General Content Guidelines include:

  • Conflicts of interest: Your contributions should be unbiased and objective. For example, you shouldn’t write reviews of your own business or employer, your friends’ or relatives’ business, your peers or competitors in your industry, or businesses in your networking group. Business owners should not ask customers to write reviews.
  • Promotional content: Unless you’re using your Business Owners Account to add content to your business’s profile page, we generally frown upon promotional content. Let’s keep the site useful for consumers and not overrun with commercial noise from every user.

Yelp’s Business Content Guidelines get a bit more specific:

Don’t Ask for Reviews

On Yelp, people read and write reviews about their favorite local businesses. So it might seem counter-intuitive that we actually discourage business owners from asking their customers to write reviews

Why does Yelp discourage businesses from asking for reviews?

    1. Would-be customers might not trust you. Let’s face it, most business owners are only going to ask for reviews from their happy customers, not the unhappy ones. Over time, these self-selected reviews create bias in the business listing — a bias that savvy consumers can smell from a mile away. No business is perfect, and it’s impossible to please 100% of your customers 100% of the time.
    2. Solicited reviews are less likely to be recommended by our automated software, and that will drive you crazy. Why aren’t these reviews recommended? Well, we have the unfortunate task of trying to help our users distinguish between real and fake reviews, and while we think we do a pretty good job at it with our fancy computer algorithms, the harsh reality is that solicited reviews often fall somewhere in between. Imagine, for example, the business owner who “asks” for a review by sticking a laptop in front of a customer and smilingly invites her to write a review while he looks over her shoulder. We don’t need these kinds of reviews, so it shouldn’t be a surprise when they aren’t recommended.

Yelp exists to connect people with great local businesses. We do this by providing people with as much trustworthy information as we can. If consumers don’t trust our content, people stop using Yelp, and everyone loses: consumers don’t have a resource they can trust to make spending decisions, and would-be customers stop visiting your business.

There’s no silver bullet for a great reputation: the best way to succeed on Yelp is by focusing on great customer service. Also be sure to claim your business on Yelp, and use our free tools to keep your business listing up to date.

Lawsuits against Yelp are nothing new. Winning one is another story. 

sf-yelp-blastYelp’s review filter’s criteria aren’t publicly disclosed, and some businesses feel that legitimate positive reviews from happy customers are unfairly hidden.  One business owner, an operator of three restaurants in Mammoth Lakes, California and a Yelp advertiser, got so frustrated with the review filter that he challenged Yelp’s review filter in court.  In February of 2013, in Levitt v. Yelp, the court ruled decisively in favor of Yelp, confirming that Yelp isn’t legally liable for filtering users’ reviews as it sees fit.

Yelp responded that the lawsuit was a “SLAPP”–a lawsuit designed to suppress socially beneficial speech–and therefore should be dismissed per California’s anti-SLAPP law.  (See this post for more discussion about anti-SLAPP laws).

In a 2011 article on TechCrunch:

[In 2010] several lawsuits emerged that accused Yelp of extorting businesses to advertise in exchange for positive reviews. Yelp has just announced that a judge granted Yelp’s request to dismiss these suits.

For background, the lawsuits claimed that after declining a request to purchase advertising on Yelp, a number of positive reviews from businesses’ listings on the reviews site mysteriously disappeared, downgrading the company’s rating on the site.

In February of 2010, two law firms, Beck & Lee from Miami and The Weston Firm in San Diego, filed a class action lawsuit in Los Angeles federal court alleging unfair business practices by Yelp. And in 2009, the East Bay Express ran a story basically accusing Yelp of being in the ‘Business of Extortion 2.0′, which covered similar ground. Shortly after reporter Kathleen Richards published the article, Yelp vehemently denied everything and called her piece inaccurate.  A number of similar copy cat suits also emerged.

As CEO and founder Jeremy Stoppelman writes “our automated system applies the same objective criteria to all reviews regardless of a business’s advertiser status. (Just check a Yelp advertiser’s business page — I bet they have a negative review or two; after all, you just can’t please everyone all the time.)

Last year, Yelp made some adjustments to its review process. For example, Yelp removed a feature that allowed businesses that advertised with Yelp to place their favorite review above others. It also let users see reviews that have been removed by its (automated) “review filter,” which is designed to help prevent business owners from posting all too positive reviews of their own company or malicious reviews of competitors.

Yelp also established a Small Business Advisory Council’ whose members have provided the company’s management with “guidance and perspective regarding the concerns of small business owners”.

Stoppelman admits that there are flaws to the system, writing, Additionally, since protecting content integrity is a difficult task, our automated algorithm isn’t perfect: sometimes legitimate content can get caught. This is an unfortunate reality in an environment where some folks are determined to try to game the system, but it is a price we are willing to pay to protect consumers and remain a useful resource.

The dismissal of the lawsuits means that the plaintiffs can’t sue Yelp again.

In September of last year, as reported by in BusinessWeek, a San Diego lawyer accused Yelp of a different kind of bullying. Attorney Julian McMillan alleges Yelp sued him in retaliation after he won his own legal claim against the company and began recruiting other businesses with similar grievances. “This is their way of swatting down a gnat,” said McMillan. “They’re trying to get me to spend money because they want to give pause to the next business that sues them.”

McMillan took Yelp to small-claims court earlier this year, alleging that the website didn’t fully deliver on ads he bought from the company. In April, the judge ruled in McMillan’s favor and ordered Yelp to reimburse him $2,700. Days before an appeals court would overturn that ruling, Yelp sued McMillan over charges he planted fake reviews of his own law firm.

Yelp has always had a complicated relationship with small businesses. To drive users to its website, the company needs to be a trusted source for unbiased customer reviews. That means employing an algorithm to remove reviews written by business owners about their own firms. The algorithm also filters reviews it suspects are written by business owners’ employees, friends, and family—a feature that Yelp Chief Executive Officer Jeremy Stoppelman has said leaves some business owners angry and confused.

Great, true reviews, if too many, are removed, yet poor reviews, which may be faked, stay. However, there is no “opt-out.” This is the greatest challenge for a business – monitoring not only mentions of their brand on a site they did not opt-in to and may not opt-out of, but monitoring all third-party comments associated with those mentions as well.

From Yelp (emphasis ours): Every day our automated software goes through the more than 47 million reviews that have been submitted to Yelp to select the most useful and reliable ones to help you find the business that’s right for you. Unlike many other sites, our stance is quality over quantity when it comes to reviews. As a result, we only recommend about three-quarters of the reviews we get. More often than not, these reviews come from active members of the Yelp community, and from those we’ve come to know and trust.

Reviews that are not recommended can still be seen via a link on the bottom of each business’s profile page, but they don’t factor into the business’ overall star rating or review count.

And what about those other reviews? Why would some not be recommended? In order to keep our content helpful and reliable, we try not to highlight reviews written by users we don’t know much about, or reviews that may be biased because they were solicited from family, friends, or favored customers. We also try to filter out reviews that may have been written or purchased by business owners to help themselves or hurt a competitor. And we try to avoid unhelpful rants and raves, as well.

What CAN you Do?

Monitor: If your business is local, curate and carefully monitor your Yelp page.  If you need help and guidance with monitoring, let us know, we can help.

Control: You may already have a page; you’re just not controlling it. Search Yelp for your business. Claim or create your Yelp business page; fill out a couple of online forms and answer a quick, automated phone call. It takes less than five minutes. Once you’re signed up, you’ll have access to tools.  Add a photo, your link, some information about your business (including keywords), a special, whatever you want.  The important thing is that you control your listing.  Anyone can add a business to YELP and you don’t want a listing that has negative or incorrect information.

Train:  Train your employees in response protocol.  Prepare messaging that allows room for personalization. 

Engage: Respond directly (Privately or publicly) to all reviews.  Respond publicly, in a positive and helpful manner to any negative reviews.

Solve: Resolve Customer Issues as soon as possible.  Mistakes happen. Fix them. When an issue occurs, the two best things you can tell a customer are “What can we do to resolve this?” and “We solved your problem.”

Report: Report any reviews you think are in violation of the review policy or that you suspect could be planted.  More important, and using a Monitoring tool if available to you, archive all messages, yours and others and document all interaction. You may need this information, and it is good business practice.

Do you find Yelp to be a reliable source of information for consumers? Is your own business fairly portrayed? Ever suspected a review was a fake? Let us know in the Comments below.

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