Business owners have suspected Yelp of manipulating rankings to sell advertising for years. The 9th Court of Appeals in San Francisco may have just confirmed the rumors by ruling that it is perfectly legal for Yelp to do just that.
Yelp allegedly sells advertising by offering to hide negative reviews and showcase positive ones. Some business owners have even noted that suspicious, defamatory negative reviews have appeared on their accounts directly after their decision to say no to Yelp’s sales force. Many business owners have also reported the disappearance of positive reviews when they refused to pay up.
SF Gate reports that Judge Martha Berzon called the practice “hard bargaining.” Critics say it is a form of extortion. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The decision has been made. Business owners must now decide how they are going to respond.
Option #1: Pay Up
This may be the path of least resistance for many business owners, especially those who can afford Yelp’s rates. There may even be a good business case for doing so: if Yelp reviews are important enough to worry about at all then it stands to reason that a Yelp ad is likely to be relatively effective. The eyeballs on the ad come with the added bonus of a clean company reputation on the site. Some companies may ultimately decide this is money well-spent, even doing so leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
However, there may be severe consequences for the business community should a great number of people decide to adopt this approach. It could create a world where Yelp becomes even more relevant, and powerful enough to request just about any sum for an ad which, ultimately, will only run on a single site. This may mean that some start-up businesses and small businesses will have to fight an uphill battle against defamatory reviews simply because they are unable to pay exorbitant rates.
Option #2: Make Yelp as Irrelevant as Possible
Yelp’s big bargaining chip is the amount of traffic that it receives and its ability to attain good SEO rankings. If those SEO rankings drop and nobody’s paying much attention to Yelp then the presence of any review on the site—negative or positive—will ultimately become a null factor. There’s already some momentum in this direction, if business owners are willing to take advantage of it: Yelp’s own reputation has been harmed by all of these lawsuits, and many users are abandoning the site.
To take advantage of this momentum you must push any Yelp entries for your business to the bottom of the SERPs. This means building a firewall of positive web entries for your business, which means getting beyond your own website. It also means keeping some portion of your own good reviews and testimonials under your control. Review sites are notoriously fickle. It takes a lot of hard work to generate positive reviews and glowing testimonials—it’s not fun to lose them at the whim of any site owner, even those who are more reputable than Yelp.
Ultimately, Yelp owns its site, and can include whatever content it wants on that site. This does not mean that business owners must live with Yelp’s portrayal of their establishments. As a reputation manager I turn Yelp ratings irrelevant every single day, and I don’t need the intervention of lawsuits or lawmakers to accomplish this feat for me. Which is good, because the courts can be fickle, too.