Someone Tied Fines to Yelp Reviews

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The vast majority of Yelp users visit the site when they have money to spend. That’s a key finding from a Nielson study funded by Yelp last year. Of those users, 98 percent made a purchase from a business they found on Yelp.

Clearly the site has power, so it’s not surprising that business owners would be tempted to strike back when they’re under attack. However, one company in New York allegedly took things a little too far this summer, and that action landed the company in some hot water. I find the whole thing fascinating, simply because there are so many effective ways to deal with a bad review on Yelp. Why go nuclear, when there are tons of better options at hand?

Here’s what happened.

Fines for Bad Responses

According to coverage of the incident in the New York Post, a hotel in Hudson, New York, chose to levy fines for poor reviews published online after an event took place. Typically (and I’m doing a little extrapolating here, as the original document that contains the fines is no longer online) the process went like this: Couples provide a credit card of some sort when they reserve this space for a special event. After the momentous day passes, administrators of this hotel look for negative reviews online, and if they find them, they charge a $500 fee to the card on file. If the reviews came down, so would the fees.

Levying fees for Yelp

I should mention that much of this is up for debate, as the hotel administrators weren’t too keen on providing interviews, and the documents were quickly wiped from the web. In fact, separate coverage of the incident on The Consumerist suggests that the whole thing was a joke that went terribly wrong.

But still.

I can understand why a company owner would be tempted to lash out and demand some kind of compensation when a negative review appears online. It’s just a tiny step away from what other people have done when they’ve been featured in a scathing Yelp review. But instead of using lawyers to sue the people who wrote negative responses, they just put the fine in the paperwork. It seems pretty savvy.

There’s just one problem with this: Innovative responses tend to spark media coverage. That means, even joking about something like this, or fining just one person, could lead to hundreds of thousands of articles, blog posts, and Tweets about your organization, and none of that coverage is positive.

In other words, getting innovative like this might be a nice way to exact momentary revenge, but typically, it leads to more messes for a company to clean up.

And it’s really not necessary.

Calm, Cool, and Collected

One of the best ways to deal with a Yelp-based problem is also one of the most obvious: Provide good service on a regular basis. If you don’t disappoint your customers, you have nothing to fear from reviews.

But chances are, there will be one person who will be disappointed with your products and services. It’s hard to please everyone all of the time, and even the most polished business falls down from time to time.

Of the 61 million reviews on Yelp (a number provided by the founder in an interview with the Associated Press), many are negative. It’s a problem, and it’s something every company will deal with at one point or another.

When that negative response appears, a proper response typically has three attributes:

  1. An apology. Consumers seem soothed when someone high up the food chain is genuinely willing to speak up and speak out about what’s gone wrong.
  2. An explanation. Although the event took place in the past, future readers might want to know just what happened and what you’ve done to ensure that it won’t happen again.
  3. Professional courtesy. Attacks and vitriol make companies look less than professional, and they might drive consumers away. No one likes to be yelled at, and if consumers think you like to yell, they might to stay away in case they become a target for your anger.

Special Considerations

Typically, following the response outline I’ve provided here keeps companies out of hot water with future consumers. But it isn’t the best response to use when the original post has no basis in fact.

It sounds paranoid, but it can happen. Competitors sometimes post reviews of companies they disagree with, writing reviews of services, products or décor issues just to siphon off a little business. When that happens, the Yelp terms of service hold some answers. Those terms clearly state that reviews can’t be either fake or defamatory. They must be true, and they must be civil.

Similarly, the Yelp content guidelines (which are incorporated into those terms of service) mandate that reviews should begin with a firsthand experience of a consumer. In other words, something must have happened in order for a review to begin. Competitors hoping to win doesn’t count. Neither does a personal vendetta. Neither does a joke. Something real had to start the process.

When bogus reviews appear, Yelp’s official stance is neutral. The website writers suggest administrators don’t monitor the site and don’t have the authority to take things down. However, business owners can flag reviews as inappropriate. That little flag alerts Yelp that something is suspicious about the review, and theoretically, that review could be removed if it’s fraudulent.

Bad Ideas

Since flags aren’t guaranteed to force Yelp to take down reviews, some execs have chosen to fight back by buying positive reviews from other consumers. Again, this is a terrible idea.

The terms of service that could help during an attack will get companies that try to game the system by buying reviews. It’s a frowned upon activity, and often, it results in penalties that could hurt. For example, the site might block or remove all positive reviews and leave only the nasty stuff behind. That could make a company’s reputation fall yet further.

There is one small workaround. Companies with loyal customers and open lines of communication can use subtle reminders to ask clients to share their stories on Yelp. It’s risky, but I’ve seen it work. If customers are told, “We’d love for you to share your stories on a website like Yelp. We’d appreciate your help!” that’s not a paid sponsorship or a push. It’s just a reminder, and it’s totally legit.

Monitoring is Key

All of these solutions I’m providing rely on one thing: Good monitoring. It’s absolutely vital for companies to know what consumers are saying, so social media staff can tackle a problem quickly, long before it explodes.

Tools like Mention and Google Alerts can help in a general way, but there are other reputation management tools provided by private companies (full disclosure: my company provides a tool like this) that are specifically focused on online review sites, and they might provide a more granular view of the sorts of problems endemic on Yelp.

If you have dealt with a problem on Yelp and have seen success with a strategy I haven’t outlined here, I’d love for you to share that in the comments. What did you do and why?

Image Credits

Featured Image: Gil C via Shutterstock
Post Image: Ketmanee via Shutterstock

Jean Dion

Jean Dion

Senior Journalist at
Jean Dion is a writer, editor, avid blogger and obsessed pet owner. She's a senior journalist with, and writes frequently on the intersection of private indiscretion and public embarrassment. Follow her on Google+ or Twitter.
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  • Alex

    Hello! I think that Yelp is a great project! But I have not known about things which are described in the post. Thanks for providing this information!

    • Jean Dion

      You’re very welcome!

  • Karan Rawat

    Hi Jean,
    There should be freedom of reviews in every platform. Good reviews and bad reviews its the part of any business, there are satisfied customers so are unsatisfied ,so there is nothing you can do about it.


    • Jean Dion

      I agree with you. Thanks for the comment!

  • Alesia Krush

    There are tons of such sites that have both positive and negative reviews (Zagat, TripAdvisor, etc.), and most people aren’t complaining about the system.

    Yet there is Yelp and a large number of disgruntled business owners who blame the service for giving unjustified amount to exposure to bad reviews and stashing positive reviews some place where few people can see them UNLESS the said business owner is a paying member.

    • Jean Dion

      You’re right about the plethora of Yelp-specific complaints, for sure. I’m not sure, however, that anyone has really proven that Yelp is a pay-to-play business. It’s an interesting theory, though!

  • chatmeter

    Reputation management is extremely important to businesses nowadays considering how easy it is to share a positive or negative experiences with thousands of people with just a click of a mouse. It’s crucial that businesses pay attention and listen to what people are saying about them. Businesses can’t make everyone happy, but what they can do is monitor and address the problem. Their customers need to know they’re being heard, but pick your battles wisely. Sometimes comments can be irrelevant or a personal attack rather than a genuine review. Don’t underestimate the power of quick real-time responses. Consumers are very impatient and the quicker a business responds, the quicker they can amends with a bad situation.

    • Jean Dion

      Well put. Thanks for the comment.

  • Dana Christy

    I can see the merits of your point of view and appreciate what you have written here. The problem is that YELP isn’t really free speech . For example, on YELP you don’t have to use your real name when leaving a review. It is very easy for a competitor in a niche market to create a fake profile and create fake reviews. This happens all the time. As a business owner, I’ve contacted “so called” customers who claimed they have visited my business. Even gone as far as offering a full refund. Guess what, the person never responds. I’ve even had one person straight out tell me they left a review using a friends yelp account.

    This is easy to fix on YELP’S part. Simply require that a person use their real name and contact information when creating an account. This includes phone number. This should also include the date and time of their visit to an establishment. There needs to be accountability on the part of YELP. Phony bad reviews can and do destroy small businesses.

  • Rank Watch

    Yelp has been under fire for a long time. They need to do something really quickly to improve their image.