Does Yelp Filter Positive Reviews if a Business Refuses to Pay for Advertising?

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Does Yelp Filter Positive Reviews if a Business Refuses to Pay for Advertising?

Editor note: This post continues the conversation of small business’ experiences with Yelp after SEJ’s Matt Southern wrote about their pending legal issues.

The FTC has revealed that they have received over 2000 complaints to date about Yelp’s practices, including allegations that Yelp buries positive reviews and displays negative ones as a selling tool, forcing more businesses to pay for advertising.

Yelp is supposed to be the last bastion on the Web for honest reviews. It’s a place where consumers are allowed to honestly and thoughtfully discuss their experiences with a business, and help others find services that will actually be useful to them. The star system keeps reviews easy to read, and multiple users posting about a location seem to give the reviews some credibility.

But not all businesses are pleased with how Yelp presents their work.

Yelp has been accused of shielding defaming comments, forcing businesses into paying for control over reviews, and a host of 2,000 other complaints filed with the FTC since 2008. With problems mounting over anonymous reviews and poor business practices, it’s looking less and less like Yelp is as user friendly as they have always claimed.

Yelp Says: “You Can’t Pay Us to Remove or Reorder Your Reviews.”

Yelp, for its part, says that they separate the content and revenue side of the business. They aren’t clear on what that means for businesses and end users, which is exactly the point.

If a business like Joe Hadeed’s carpeting in Virginia suddenly shows up on Yelp, the owner may not even be aware of it. Yelp collects business data from third party vendors, and from user input. This means there is virtually no safeguard for businesses hoping to shield themselves from poor reviews. You can’t opt out of the process, you can’t ask for removal, and you have little control over which reviews feature on your page, unless you pay for the privilege.

At least that’s the implied message. Yelp writes that they do not accept payment to remove reviews in their FAQ, but several business owners have claimed that Yelp sales people use negative reviews to drive conversions. The pitch involves paying for more control over a page, using terms like “controlling ad space.”

Some, like 64 year old Randy Boelsems, say that the sales people will continually harass a business owner with offers to move bad reviews and buy up ad real estate for more control over a Yelp page. This pressure is very real. Business owners like Joe Hadeed in Virginia have even tried to fake reviews to raise their positivity. He tried to sue Yelp to reveal the identities of the defamers of his business, and the courts eventually ruled in his favor.

The battle between what is real and fake leads to defamation suits too. Another Virginia case saw a disagreement over contract work stir up a legal battle between a contractor and his customer.

Solicitation And Sales Practices

Wall Street Journal reported that the Yelp receives roughly six subpoenas a month that request reviewer information. Many of these relate to businesses who feel they have been unfairly defamed, or poorly reviewed. When these owners pay for the privilege, Yelp is quick to help them establish a greater presence on the website, even selling ad space to them on competitor pages. If these owners cancel, Yelp is just as quick to push those good reviews into the “not recommended” category.

Yelp seems to be using their power as a database to force businesses into paying them. First, they recruit you without your consent. Then they mask your best reviews, effectively creating a pay-wall where business owners must pay out to retain some integrity.

Some Changes at Yelp

Yelp has quietly made a few recent changes to its design, layout and verbiage.  Back in November, the link to the filtered reviews, which appeared on the bottom of all reviews changed from “Filtered Reviews” to “other reviews that are not currently recommended “

Last month Yelp also changed the layout to the review pages by showing scrollable images on top.

Is Yelp Guilty of Abuse?

As a reputation management expert, I deal with clients that have Yelp issues on a daily basis. I analyze Yelp results and have a great deal of knowledge about how the Yelp filter works. I do not think that Yelp would purposely filter reviews of those who refuse to advertise. However, this could have been a practice done a few years back and it is also possible that a few sales people have tried to say this to potential clients to gain their business.

People that have seen their reviews get filtered or unfiltered after refusal to advertise could have been just a coincidental incident.  I hate to come to Yelp’s defense, because I dislike many of their practices, but I do not think that Yelp would risk so many lawsuits and their public image just to close a deal.

A Possible Solution

If anyone from Yelp or other review sites should happen to read this, I do have some recommendations for them on how they could change things to keep their customers happy:

  1. Display the full name of the poster, including their Facebook link, if they have chosen to link it.
  2. Require cell phone authentication or some sort of other authentication to validate the reviewer’s identity.
  3. Disclose the user’s identity, including email, IP address and any other data in the business owner’s dashboard or at least when a business owner requests it.
  4. Provide an arbitration service for a small fee to resolve disputed reviews. The reviewer should have evidence such as a receipt or an agreement that they have been to the business or used their services. If not the review should be removed. The business owner should be able to submit documents to prove whether the review is false.  This service may also be outsourced to a few authorized companies, such as attorneys or reputation management companies.

What are your thoughts on Yelp’s practices? How would you keep Yelp honest for businesses and reviewers?

Image via creative commons.

Pierre Zarokian
Pierre Zarokian is a veteran in search engine marketing. He launched Submit Express in 1998, which offers search engine marketing services and SEO tools. Ranking... Read Full Bio
Pierre Zarokian
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  • Norm

    Pierre Zarokian- seems like you are suggesting Yelp be more like the Better Business Bureau by not allowing anonymous reviews and offering an arbitration process. The problem with the arbitration process is that it takes “2 to tango.” you would rarely have a customer push it that far to spend a few hours going through an arbitration hearing. Most reviews on Yelp just want to vent and don’t often seek a monetary resolution. People are not going through a arbitration for a bad steak dinner!

  • Pierre Zarokian

    Norm: there could also be 2 levels of reviews.Verified and unverified. Unverfified would be those not willing to provide documentation or go to arbitration. Yelp can put the unverified under their filtered results.

  • James R. Halloran

    Great points here, Pierre! I agree that Yelp should instill some form of verified reviews. It’s all too easy for a competitor or a customer with an overly exaggerated experience to ruin one business.

    Even a one-star difference could mean a loss of up to 30 percent, and for a small business, that’s murder. Whether Yelp likes it or not, they really do need to establish stricter protocols for what reviews can and cannot be seen.

  • Ron

    Yelp has committed the cardinal sin for their sector; they have lost trust, particularly amongst the business community. For them to continue as a successful venture, and not be perceived as simply an online “protection racket,” they must made substantive changes. And they shouldn’t (but they likely will…) wait until the court cases play out…

  • Chris Sanfilippo (@csanfilippo01)

    Yelp has the most aggressive sales people I have ever seen. They just don’t take no for an answer and KEEP calling. They must sell a lot of ads. I tell local SEO clients that I will register them on Yelp last, and then I give them a heads up on how to deal with Yelp’s sales reps.

  • Michelle Magarian

    As a business owner I feel that I have no power over a false review. Anyone can say anything they want on yelp whether it’s true or not. I don’t think Yelp is as concerned for a small business that works hard to maintain a good image as they do for the “right” of an angry person to say something that is not necessarily true. No wonder it has become harder to keep small businesses open…where are our advocates?

  • Scott Tobin

    I can testify first hand now that Yelp is back to their old game of “fixing” bad reviews if you agree to advertise. We recently visited two clients in two different parts of the country who had both just been visited by Yelp reps who said “if you advertise we can help with those reviews”

  • Kollin Yelensky

    Great article Pierre! Yelp drives me crazy!! I have a client who has 15- 5 star reviews that Yelp is showing and another 4- 5 star reviews that they are not. I have some clients that will have 4- 5 star reviews one day and the next Yelp hides 3 of them. The only similarity is that the reviewer is new to Yelp and that may be their only review.
    The fact that Yelp is punishing that person/review is crazy. Because of leaving the review that person now knows of Yelp and can become a user. I have called and spoken to their customer service many times and it goes no where.
    They claim, they can’t control what reviews go up. Some system needs to be in place to the business is rewarded for bringing people to Yelp to write the review in the first place.

  • Justin C.

    I’ve had many conversations with Yelp salespeople, and yes, I have found them to be aggressive. I say Yelp should allow businesses to opt out or restrict user content on pages.

    • Mike

      Yelp will never instill some form of verified reviews through their review system for the simple reason: at least 35% of bad reviews will never go online. Yelp does not want this, Yelp will hate this, but Yelp would love to see bad reviews around your business
      and it doesn’t matter it’s fake or real reviews,

      now is time to call Yelp…

  • Linda

    I believe that the service that YELP provides is postive overall but NOT how YELP does it. I have had a business for 23 years now and have built up a very good reputation. When YELP came on the scene I was excited for it. I think it keeps all of us on our feet. But now several years later I couldn’t disagree more. I’ve gone from a 5 star rating down to a 2 star (it’s probably even lower now) because of 3 negative reviews. They are all several years old but never go away. They have only posted 1 positive review for us. Sometimes positives show up for a day or two but quickly disappear. There is also a small link at the bottom of the page that is called ‘unrecommended reviews’ (or something like that) with 15 (!) positive reviews that they refuse to post. I’ve contacted YELP offering to show them sales tickets to prove that these are legitimate clients but they aren’t interested. They have offered to ‘get my star to rise again’ (their exact words) if I purchase their service. I’ve never really gotten far enough to understand exactly what their service is! I refused to be strong-armed or become a victim of extortion. I’m shocked that they are allowed to get away with these types of tactics. I say they should be forced to post everything or nothing at all.

  • Mica

    Overall, this comment thread appears to be populated by business owners whom feel they have been wronged by Yelp or customers.

    While Yelp’s business practices may have been previously deplorable, they offer a service I as a customer truly appreciate – peer review.

    When viewing a business on Yelp, I do look first at star rating, though I weigh number of reviews when scanning reviews.

    • Mica

      For example, if a business has a 2-star rating from 5 customers, I’m apt to look at those review to ensure accurate reviews are listed; conversely, if 1000+ people have weighed-in to an aggregate 2-stars, your business obviously needs repair.

  • Paul Richmond

    I wish we could leave reviews of Yelp

    I sent multiple requests for technical support without result and eventually wound up with a sales person who tried to sell me on a $5K a year package.

    After telling them they were insane I was told that sales staff is the totality of tech support.

    Yelp is crap

  • Kate

    I run a small business and was contacted by Yelp a couple of weeks ago to adverfise with them which I turned them down. Now in a matter of 2 days, 3 of the 5-stars reviews got filtered out (one of them was there for months already). There is no other explaination than Yelp will make your business look bad unless you pay them. Evil!