Article by Pierre Zarokian.
Yelp is turning up the heat on businesses it says are manipulating its “natural flow of reviews” on the site. It’s vowing vengeance against two groups the company says are abusing its rules: reputation management organizations that promise to fix Yelp reviews, and the businesses that hire them.
Not only will the company issue consumer alerts, Yelp’s program designed to flag businesses that violate its terms, they say they will demote search rankings too. This all sounds like pretty serious stuff, so let’s dig into what Yelp is really saying here.
We first became aware of this through a letter directed to my office. I’ve pasted the letter in its entirety below:
You are putting your clients’ online reputation at risk by soliciting Yelp reviews on their behalf.
Beginning this month we are contacting local businesses that solicit reviews on Yelp to highlight that asking for reviews violates our policies. We explain that engaging in this practice may result in demotion in Yelp search results.
Soliciting reviews for your clients is an illicit tactic that biases their online reputations and search rankings, thus harming consumers, other businesses, and the overall review ecosystem. For more information on Yelp’s stance against review solicitation, see our blog post.
The Yelp Support Team
Yelp wants to make this about fairness, saying that it is only trying to protect the reputation of businesses that earn their reviews the hard way. Frankly, this is a blatantly hypocritical stance to take considering the way the company harasses businesses into buying into its advertising.
As a business owner, you’re essentially at the mercy of Yelp. It pulls publicly accessible information about you, without your consent, assigns you an arbitrary score based on “users” it will fight hard in court to obscure, and charges you money to improve your standing in its search. If you don’t pay them, other users who do pay them will get customer attention, sometimes even on your business page.
If this is about fairness, then why is Yelp berating businesses so badly that they go on anti-Yelp campaigns to purposely solicit bad reviews and break the system?
Threatening rank demotion is another tactic that rings hollow coming from Yelp. Yelp says in the blog post about this issue that they will flag issues they think engage in this practice. This wording is very vague. Do they think, or do they have some evidence that points to it? If so, what evidence? Will they divulge this evidence to the business, or will they claim that doing so would provide insight into their algorithms?
So, essentially if Yelp “thinks” you’re up to no good they can demote you. They may try to sell you advertising in this processing, and failing to buy puts you at an even larger disadvantage. So, arbitrarily Yelp may just decide it doesn’t like your business and make you even harder to find. Once users do find you, they’ll receive a notice saying you asked for reviews and violated their terms of service.
Don’t worry, though, there will probably be some sort of arbitration program or method to buy additional advertising space that will sweep this entire problem under the nearest digital filter. Never to be seen or heard from again.
Yelp is running into the same problem Google ran into once SEO became a real industry: the market has created a secondary industry that capitalizes on the algorithm. Yelp can try and retaliate by citing businesses and making demotions, but this is a problem they created for themselves.
Anytime you create an engine that ranks businesses based on certain factors, some businesses are going to purposely focus on those factors. In some ways, you might even consider this good business practice. Remember, every star lost in Yelp reviews is literal money on the table. The competition surrounding reviews is immense. Yelp should do a better job of filtering disingenuous reviews and leave business owners alone.
Every day, hardworking small businesses have to contend with the shadow of Yelp influencing customer behavior. Any attempt they make to improve their standing, short of paying Yelp, is fine as long as it’s not too successful. This is hypocrisy from Yelp. It’s blatant, and it’s not something that businesses should stand for.
Linking to the success guide at the end of the post is a slap in the face. Businesses that do claim their listings just open themselves up to more scrutiny from Yelp’s sales department. Those who choose not to are blocked from interacting with customers, disputing reviews or developing their presence on Yelp. You’re damned if you do, and you’re certainly damned if you don’t.
Unless you pay Yelp.