Yelp is the customer review website that millions of Internet users rely on for information about businesses in their areas: restaurants, auto mechanics, doctors and dentists – you name it. If you’ve hung out your shingle and the public is your customer base, chances are you’ve been reviewed on Yelp.
By the second quarter of 2016, some sixty-nine million users were turning to Yelp via mobile app each month. And according to Yelp’s own numbers, more than 108 million reviews had been posted by site visitors – affectionately referred to as “Yelpers.”
That’s a lot of people. In such a user-driven site, honesty and trust are essential. But plainly there is an enormous potential for abuse, in the form of unfairly negative, and even bogus reviews.
The Trust Factor
In the twelve years since it launched, Yelp has become the go-to customer review website. Yelp CEO and co-founder Jeremy Stoppelman acknowledged how important it is that users have confidence in the reviews they read. “Maintaining the trust of the consumer is critical to our business,” he said in 2014. “We live and breathe only one thing, which is wanting to connect consumers with great local businesses.”
But according to a 2013 study, at least sixteen percent of Yelp reviews are fake – in many cases, written by writers paid to either praise one business or another, or to trash it.
Yelp is aware of this abuse, of course. “One thing that was slightly surprising,” said Georgios Zervas, one of the authors of that 2013 study, “is the proportion of suspected fake reviews that Yelp removes – approximately one quarter of all reviews submitted to Yelp are not published. That’s about ten million reviews.”
But a lot of those fake reviews do get posted, and they are a serious concern – not only to Yelp, but to law enforcement authorities.
Operation Clean Turf
According to the New York Attorney General’s office, unscrupulous companies posted ads on Craigslist, looking not merely for writers, but writers savvy enough to cover their tracks. “You must be able to have multiple IPs,” the ad said, meaning the numbers, or addresses, that uniquely identify any device connected to the Internet. “The reviews will be only few sentences long. Need to have some understanding on how Yelp filters works. Previous experience is a plus.”
The New York AG wasted no time in setting up “Operation Clean Turf,” a year-long sting operation. They set up a fake yogurt business in Brooklyn and began soliciting for reviewers. By the time they finished, they had nabbed nineteen companies engaged in writing phony reviews.
Jeremy Stoppelman said Yelp worked closely with investigators, and that he was very happy those nineteen companies were caught. Whenever they catch a business that pays for false reviews, Yelp places a consumer alert on that company’s business page and leaves it there for ninety days. “It’s obviously a deterrent,” he said, “and as more business owners find out that we’re out there hunting, and you’re likely to get caught red-handed if do…[it’s] really going to affect your business.”
What You Can Do
And yet, that doesn’t stop fake reviews from being written and posted, and it doesn’t mean you can count on Yelp to remove them from its site. “We don't typically take sides in factual disputes and generally allow Yelpers to stand behind their reviews,” Yelp says, on its Support Center page.
You have the right to defend your online reputation, but in cases of fake reviews you may feel like the deck is stacked against you. Writing on the 39 Celsius website, a web marketer identified only as Toby put it this way: “The only way you can get rid of bad Yelp reviews is if the review itself is deemed inappropriate by the Yelp TOS [terms of service], in which case you can have it flagged as inappropriate, and it will be reviewed.”
Unfortunately, what is and is not "inappropriate" content is a matter of opinion – usually Yelp’s. “Someone using four-letter words, or personally attacking you or the business and slandering you falls under inappropriate,” Toby said, “but there are shades of gray in that interpretation.”
What You Can’t Do
Understandably, Yelp policies have angered a lot of small business owners who feel victimized by fake reviews. Yelp is protected by the First Amendment and the Communications Decency Act, so the targets of fake reviews often feel powerless to strike back. For a while there was a website called yelpsucks.com, where you could at least review the reviews. But the last time we checked, the site no longer worked. In fact, the yelpsucks.com URL re-directs you to Yelp.
Not very helpful. Even if it was, though, the tit-for-tat game means you sink to the level of those who gave you a bad Yelp review – reviewers who, far too often, are posting anonymously, and might even be paid to do so.
Nor is Yelp’s advice very helpful: is there’s a false review, “post a public response in order to clear up any misunderstandings.”
Defend Your Online Reputation
The first thing to do is to claim your business on Yelp. In this day and age, you should consider that a standard business practice. By claiming your business on Yelp, you are positioned to immediately defend the reputation of your business.
If a false review is posted, you can:
- Call On Your Best Customers. Your best customers will probably be happy to provide you with a positive Yelp review. Be prepared with business cards that have your Yelp address already printed on them. You can sweeten the deal by offering select customers a discount in exchange for a review.
- Get Customer Testimonials. These can be very effective. Ask your best customers to provide you with positive feedback. Video testimonials are extremely powerful, and you probably have video capability on your smart phone. Put the videos on your YouTube channel and link them back to your website.
- Create Awareness. Develop materials you can post inside your business that encourage reviews.
In the most serious cases, it may be best to get professional help. InternetReputation.com is a leading Online Reputation Management company with review management services that provide solutions to false or negative online reviews. You have spent years building a successful business; don’t let false Yelp reviews drag it down or destroy it.