Yelp Makes Small Businesses Scream

July 4th, 2008 by Will Scott

I got this link by email from one of our clients (for Botox, San Francisco folks can’t go wrong with Dr. Roy Kim – yes, it’s a blatant link-drop) and it got me going on a pet peeve of mine:

Small Business owners giving up control over their own online destiny.

From the SFGate (San Francisco Chronicle Online): Merchants angry over getting yanked by Yelp

This article brings to a head a few issues of significance from professionals like us and from the service providers.
Yelp logo

Businesses like those in the article have come to rely on Yelp for the connection to buyers. If only it were just Yelp…

…There’s Insider Pages, Google maps, WordPress and many other free services on which may small businesses rely and which have completely opaque and oftentimes arbitrary rules and enforcement thereof.

There are a couple of significant challenges for small businesses online which are related but not always connected:

Aaaaaargh! Makes me want to scream. Really.

Greg Sterling constantly points to the need for education as one of the biggest impediments to small business acceptance of online marketing and I think he’s right. But the problem is, the ignorance that comes with a lack of education is really hurting small businesses.

Look at these poor saps in the Yelp article. Even if they knew what they were doing was wrong — and I’m sure they didn’t fully understand the rules, the emergence of these new yellow pages replacements is completely inscrutable to small businesses. As the recent local search ranking factors study (which I intend to write some more about) from David Mihm shows, there’s not even agreement among professional practitioners.

And then The New York Times stirs the pot with an article regarding Incentives for video reviews. You mean there’s something wrong with incentivizing reviews?

And then there’s my dearest Ms. Laycock berating those complaining about failings of a free service (Twitter).

For me it all leads back to a central frustration I feel from small businesses: they understood the Yellow Pages. You pay more, you get a bigger ad, you get more calls. How hard is that?

The problem with online is that many of these services on which the business must rely are free. And since they’re free there’s no repercussions if they don’t work, or don’t work as intended. And worse still there’s no way to get a realistic grasp of the totality of the rules nor an appeals process when one accidentally crosses the line.

So with all these problems how do you effectively use internet marketing for small business ?

Simple – you go back to the basics. You don’t rely on raw technology and you definitely don’t get caught up in “They’re doing it so should I”.

Oh, and you don’t fall for a slick sales pitch from the likes of SEOMatrix, Yodle (formerly Natpal), or LinksHog (or one of their hundred other names).

The problem with many practitioners and many small businesses either doing it themselves or outsourcing is that they get caught up in the flavor of the week. There are some very smart discussions about regarding how you rank well in Google maps, the value of reviews and the sites on which they live. But…

All that doesn’t matter if you, the small business owner, don’t control your own destiny!

Here are a few clues that the sales pitch you’re hearing isn’t going to allow you to control your own destiny:

  • Use of the word “Proprietary”
  • Mention of “Optimized Landing Pages” (hint: if they optimize a landing page they own, they’re not optimizing your site )
  • Inclusion in proprietary “Directory” listings — don’t get me wrong, directories are great but the ones we like are the ones whose listings don’t go away when you stop paying
  • Switching costs – in other words you have to pay to leave
  • Mention of ownership of “thousands of sites

In short, if you’re looking for small business internet marketing, or even if you’re in a niche with higher returns and you need plastic surgery internet marketing or any other internet marketing remember one thing:

  • If it doesn’t increase the search engine positioning of your site look twice — make sure you understand the outcomes and that the reward is worth the risk.

So make sure you cover the basics before before you try the flavor of the week and if you don’t understand the pitch ask more questions. And if you don’t believe the answers get a second opinion.

Just to be clear all of these distribution methods have value: reviews, directory listings, blogging, video optimization, even pay per click.

Please be sure you know the reward and most importantly be sure the click you buy lands on your site or makes your phone ring!