Buying Yelp Reviews Is BAD for Business

April 15th, 2010 by Amy Arnold

Yelp is intended as a review site where users can write and read reviews for local businesses to help make informed buying decisions. It’s a powerful tool in that users trust the real opinions and feedback from their friends and neighbors. Yelp’s user-driven reviews allow everyone to add in their opinions of products and services at local clubs, restaurants, and businesses in all forms.

There is obvious value to a small business owner in getting users to leave positive reviews. The question is how much should a business pay for a review? No, no, no … I’m joking. The question really is how do you encourage customers to leave Yelp reviews naturally and organically without abusing the intent of the site?

To Solicit or not to Solicit

Yelp is clear about incentives for reviews: “Yelp has advised business owners not to offer incentives for reviews. For starters, paying people to write reviews about your business is another form of shilling and that’s just wrong. Second, very often you’ll offend a customer and the offer will be quickly outed in your reviews, resulting in unintended negative reviews and/or negative publicity. Finally, it’s typically a fruitless exercise.”

It’s a fruitless exercise because of the Yelp review filter.  Yelp knows their site is a great opportunity for illegitimate behavior, and they have built tools to attempt to minimize the spam and attempt to maintain the authenticity of the site. They haven’t been entirely successful. Says Luther Lowe of Yelp,

‘It’s very tough to design algorithms that can tell the difference between the guy who’s cranking out a fake five-star review about himself, and the guy who’s flipped that laptop around and handed it to his customer and said, “Hey, write a five-star review about me.” So, you know, I know that businesses are going to ask people to write reviews. If you do that, you need to be prepared for pretty violent review fluctuation.”

From Yelp Common Questions: “Some reviewers are more credible than others. For the most part, users can decide for themselves which reviewers they trust the most. We remove some of the guesswork by filtering out reviews that are written by less established users. We do this in order to provide more trustworthy and useful content to our users and to help protect against fake reviews from malicious competitors and disgruntled former employees.”

Control Yourself on Yelp

Every small business wants testimonials to help drive traffic. Yelp is tremendously trusted by real world users. (Isn’t it more encouraging to try the new restaurant in town after you read 10 great reviews online?)

And Yelp is tremendously trusted by search engines, and being so trustworthy makes it ripe for abuse by some businesses and internet marketers. The prime example is Google Local map rankings, which are influenced by some degree by the presence of online reviews on select review sites.

But Yelp advises you to control yourself:

“Should I ask customers to write reviews for my business?

While we understand that there is a temptation to solicit reviews from your customers, it is not something we encourage. The most successful businesses on Yelp have had their reviews come organically. This is for a couple of reasons:

1. Potential customers can sometimes have an adverse reaction to a business that looks like it has solicited reviews.

2. Quite often those solicited reviews will be filtered out (see above) based on the activity level of those users within the Yelp community.

If you do ask your customers for reviews, please be prepared for the review number fluctuation that might follow.

Also, keep in mind — success on Yelp is primarily measured by the number of people who view your page and thus walk in the door or set an appointment, not the number of reviews you have. Yelp users are savvy: they care about quality — not quantity — when it comes to your business reviews.”

To be completely genuine, solicitation of reviews even without incentive is frowned upon. And incentivized reviews (buying Yelp reviews) are absolutely unethical …

This picture taken in the store suggests completing a review, and not only a review … but “as good as it gets” review, to get 20% off the next purchase. One reviewer complains on this business’ Yelp profile about the incentivized review request in the store; Mel T comments on Yelp:

“How would they base the authenticy of a Yelp review? What if I just claimed ownership of Jane D.’s (as in Jane Doe – I’m not trying to impersonate any fellow Yelpers here) review? How would they know if I was really Jane D.?

- Would I still get a discount if I had written a review, but it wasn’t “raving?”

Well, I’m sorry, Pure Beauty. You cannot buy a five star Yelp review from me. Instead, your blantant bribary is going to cost you two whole stars. Yep, that’s right; I’m knocking you down TWO full stars. Had it not been for your sign, I would have given you three stars – an A-OK for decent employees during my visits, a relatively clean shop, and reasonable prices.

But, again, I will not stand for your bribary. Hmph. (Hmm..wonder if I can get 20% off with this review..?)”

This beauty supply store has bigger issues than their Yelp spamming. There are quite a few reviews blasting their customer service. Perhaps, they should consider better ways to combat negative publicity.

Asking for Help on Yelp

One self-proclaimed newbie small business on Yelp asks help of the Yelpers, Greg “GSKChicago” K., asks, “I am relatively new to Yelp and still learning my way around … What do Yelpers look for from a business owner on Yelp?”

The answers:

Miguel “the Coach” R. says: “honesty!”

Lauren “Order” H. says: “if you do anything related to your own busines, disclose that you are the owner. and don’t use the talk boards or other parts of the yelp site as free promo or spam.”

nikki c. says: “just be real, honest and your own worst critic.”

Seems legitimate enough. This business owner wants to do the Yelp thing correctly, but Miguel “The Coach” R. comes back later to point out some problems, and all of Greg’s good intent evaporates:

Miguel “the Coach” R.:  “Greg -No offense but after reading the reviews for your business, I am a little disappointed. Everyone who did a review on your business – only did a review on your business. So, that means that you either made several profiles, had your friends make profiles, somehow convinced your customers to make a profile and only rate your company – or – some combination of the three.

If you want my opinion. No company will EVER completely 100% satisfy each and every customer. And to see nothing but 5 stars for each review is flat out unbelievable.

As of right now I feel as though you have already been dishonest by doing what you did, and that will eventually hurt your business rather than help it.”

Using Social Media to Drive Fans over to Yelp Profile

(Some text has been edited from original post.)

If your small business has a strong Facebook Fan base, you can attempt drive Fans over to your Yelp profile and hope that some percentage of them will actually leave reviews. These businesses on Facebook are technically soliciting reviews but offering nothing in return, so their Yelp review building may be considered more legitimate. They are still soliciting, but they aren’t buying Yelp reviews.

This Facebook-er is more blatant. The Lone Star Salon tells Fans if they leave a review on a review site, Lone Star Salon will give them $10.   Totally buying a review.

And ….

And …

We’re talking about pretty low value transactions here – a water bottle, a free cookie, etc. – but any incentive can be enough for a reviewer to take a few moments to drop a review into a Yelp profile that they would not have done if not incentivized.

Raffle Your Incentive … is Still Incentive

Another way to buy a review is a little more subtle, but it is still crossing Yelp’s guidelines for good Yelping. Essentially it is offering a chance to win a free product or gift certificate in a raffle. It’s not a direct exchange like Lone Star’s program, but these are still incentive for leaving a review.

Any reviews on Yelp from these campaigns are not the natural and organic reviewing that is Yelp has struggled to maintain. From Yelp Terms of Service:

“You agree that you will not, and will not assist or enable others to: use the Site in a manner that may create a conflict of interest, such as trading reviews with other business owners or writing or soliciting shill reviews”

And there are a few abusers on Twitter too …

Again, offering a chance to win free product or discount is not directly buying a Yelp review, but it is definitely incentive for the reviewer, warranting the review as forced.  Not natural behavior for Ramona Family Naturals.

They tweeted on the 14th and got 2 5-star reviews on the 15th. (I wonder who won the box of organic produce?  They should tweet that.)

And The Spot Yogurt in Santa Monica appear to be naively direct in their request.

And before that, they requested on March 31st too.

Of course, we know that ignorance of the rule is not exception from it.  Yelp says of this type of false reviewing:

“very often you’ll offend a customer and the offer will be quickly outed in your reviews, resulting in unintended negative reviews and/or negative publicity”

Luther Lowe on business owners aggressively soliciting reviews from customers:  “it just looks spammy and decreases the authenticity of your overall presence. That can turn the customers off to you.”

Charles Grumblemouse O. has a more virtuous Yelper attitude. He says of being Paid to write reviews:

“… the impetus for writing reviews is surely different if you’re paid than if you were just doing it for the love right?”

And finally, it’s important to be creative and sincere. Here’s a great case study of a New York Locksmith. He’s got a great perspective on how to get Yelp reviews without direct solicitation.

Image credits: Thanks to “twonjosh,” “Silver Smith,” ZDNEt, and Steve Rhodes for the images!