Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Yelp: A Protection Racket Masquerading as a Review Site

 No Yelp

Many business owners believe Yelp is a protection racket masquerading as a review site. They say Yelp has full control over which reviews are counted and that Yelp manipulates the ratings based on whether or not a business buys advertising from them. They say Yelp salespeople are relentless and very aggressive. Business owners who pay for advertising are promised some control over their reviews.

Yelp has a market capitalization of $3.2 billion. More than 42 million reviews have been posted to Yelp and the site averages 108 million visitors per month.

Yelp Reviews

Yelp's business model pits the consumer against the business.

Yelp's product is advertising and their customers are business owners, not consumers. Yelp's content, other than advertising is provided free of charge by their users, but any time there is a conflict between a consumer and an advertiser, Yelp sides with the advertiser. Yelp salespeople are coached to offer advertisers assistance in getting negative reviews removed.

Most people who rely on Yelp reviews have no idea how the reviews are manipulated by Yelp. Yelp claims, "Currently, about 75% of all reviews are recommended." Yelp's criteria for sorting reviews is a trade secret and they've constructed it in a way that that makes it very difficult to reverse-engineer. 

Among the frequently asked questions on Yelp’s website, is this: “Will Yelp remove or reorder bad reviews if a business pays for sponsorship?”And the answer: “No. You can’t pay us to remove or reorder your bad reviews — it’s just that simple.”

That's what Yelp says. However the evidence indicates otherwise. Many businesses owners who don't advertise on Yelp believe Yelp filters reviews when there are too many positive ones. Many small-business owners say Yelp routinely uses bad reviews and competitors’ ads as leverage to get merchants to cough up some cash.

Most people who use Yelp don't know about the filtered reviews. Reviews that Yelp doesn't recommend can still be seen via a link, but that link is buried at the bottom of the page. Yelp can and does show different reviews to different people. They can show you a review you wrote as if it mattered, while at the same time for everyone else, your review is sitting in the "Not Recommended" wasteland.

Chain restaurants have very few reviews filtered out, while restaurants that are small operations have very few reviews, or bad reviews, and are much more likely to have many reviews filtered out.

High Pressure Sales Tactics

Advertising costs on Yelp began between $300 - $500 a month, but you have to commit to 6 months to a year.

Yelp salespeople will tell you:

1. "You are getting X amount of clicks on our Yelp page daily and you should be paying Yelp for every single one of those clicks."

2. "Hey, you have a decent reputation on Yelp. You should think about advertising, so more people can see you."

They continually harass you and strong-arm you to get you to pay for their service. Many of the ad impressions they sell are next to worthless because of their placement on the page or because they are displayed to the wrong audience.

Pay to play on Yelp

You tell them no enough times and suddenly, you'll see three or four bad reviews appear and some of the good ones disappear. Yelp will sell ad space on your page to your competitors and then when you ask about it they will offer to sell that ad space to you.

Yelp doesn't trust positive reviews but they are happy to use dubious negative reviews to strong-arm a business into buying advertising.

Compliance Verification

Yelp is accused of "naming and shaming" those businesses who Yelp suspects have suspicious reviews. They will penalize you if they suspect you have been soliciting reviews. Once accused by Yelp of soliciting reviews the business must submit a Compliance Verification form and wait 30 to 45 days before Yelp may confirm the business is no longer soliciting reviews and remove the search results penalty.

Meanwhile, there are lots of people (including Elite Members) selling Yelp reviews on the internet via Craig's List and other web sites. A Google search for "Buy Yelp reviews" turns up lots of links and quite a few advising against it because if it is detected, you will be punished. 

ABC recently reported that Yelp is now playing private detective to find businesses paying for reviews and outing them publicly. They create an unfair environment then call out people for trying to avoid the damage it creates.

FTC Investigation

Yelp has been under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, but as of yet no charges have been filed. 2,000 complaints were filed by businesses that their rankings were diminished because they refused to advertise with Yelp.

Yelp Elite

Elite member get special benefits and have a lot of power -- if you get a five-star review from a Yelp Elite,  it's there forever.

Yelp Elites are particularly demanding. They can often be vindictive, or use the threat of a bad review as leverage to get discounts or refunds. Merchants can often feel blackmailed by customers while also paying protection to Yelp.

A group of disgruntled Yelp reviewers have filed a class-action lawsuit demanding that they be compensated for posting their opinions on the site.

According to the suit, the angry Yelpers are arguing that they are technically unpaid employees who deserve money for their “work” — which includes writing, researching, editing and lodging reviews — since they’re crucial to Yelp’s business model.

Businesses Have no Choice

Whether you want to be on Yelp or whether you don't want to be on Yelp, whether people know you're on Yelp or not, you're gonna be on there. You can't delete your account, but you can be prevented from commenting on reviews about your business. 

Yelp Reviewers Who Are Terminated Have no Recourse 

From Yelp's Terms of Service:
"We may close your account, suspend your ability to use certain portions of the Service, and/or ban you altogether from the Service for any or no reason, and without notice or liability of any kind."

It's time to impose some costs on Yelp for their unfair business practices

For starters, Yelp should be banned from the search results on Google (and other search engines) until they change their ways. Of course that's not likely to happen, but if Google receives enough complaints about Yelp's conduct, they might reduce the credibility and ranking they currently assign to Yelp pages about individual businesses.  

For more information

See Billion Dollar Bully -- This documentary explores accusations that online marketing giant Yelp! is running a mob-like extortion racket against business owners who refuse, or can't afford to pay-to-play.

Billion Dollar Bully

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