Category Archives: Extortion

Yelp, Extortion, Lawsuits and Negative Reviews–Reading time 5 minutes

Yelp is Frustrating

Yelp, the well-known review site, is the subject of complaints from all sides.

Web visitors wonder whether the reviews are genuine–have positive reviews been written or influenced by the business?  Or have negative reviews been placed there by the competition?  Can the reviews be trusted?

Similarly, businesses can be frustrated by critical reviews on Yelp.  Are they genuine, or are they from competitors or just mischief-makers?  And when Yelp chooses not to “recommend” positive reviews of a business, it can be very frustrating.  The reviews sit below the “recommended” reviews, requiring an extra click to see, with the number of stars grayed out.

Then we hear stories of Yelp advertising salespeople who offer to “fix” negative reviews if the business will buy advertising…or to accentuate negative reviews if they don’t.

This is an issue that I’ve followed closely, and here I’ll give you my considered view of Yelp and this whole issue.

Extortion

Yelp has been accused of extortion several times.  Many Yelp customers have reported that a salesman offered to help remove negative reviews if they purchased advertising, or offered to make negative reviews go away.  These reports are so numerous and so dispersed geographically that this does appear to be happening.

There have been several lawsuits over this issue, and last November a Federal Court of Appeals ruled that plaintiffs had not shown evidence that Yelp had changed ratings because of advertising payments.  This follows a pattern, where Yelp so far was won every such suit that has been filed.

It would not be sensible for Yelp to extort advertising customers.  Yelp’s product is reviews–they have nothing else to sell.  So if their reviews are dependable and of high quality, Yelp can succeed.  However, if their reviews are being manipulated and Web users learn of it, usage of Yelp won’t grow nearly as fast as it would with dependable reviews.  Because Yelp is a large organization, changing reviews for advertisers can’t stay secret very long.  We could expect to see a disgruntled employee on television, telling all about this practice, thereby becoming part of many lawsuits brought by customers.

Which is not to say that Yelp salespeople don’t offer to manipulate reviews in order to sell advertising.  It’s easy to see how a salesperson could see this method as the path to a quick sale.  And well it might be!  But an unethical salesperson–even man of them–don’t mean that the company is systematically doing what he is offering.

Given that lawsuits have never shown the company to be manipulating reviews, and given that it would be a startlingly unwise business practice, I doubt that the company manipulates results in response to advertising revenues.

“Not Recommended” Reviews

Some reviews are shown as “not recommended”, which means that an extra click is needed to see them, that their star ratings are grayed out, and their scores and not used in computing the business’s overall rating.

It’s very frustrating to a business owner who sees reviews from customers he might recognize that are classified as “not recommended”.  He’d like to respond in some way to convince Yelp to display these recommendations.

Yelp’s side of the story is that they use software that runs automatically to classify reviews, and the decision of the software is final.  They don’t provide a way for a business owner to reach out to someone who has written a review that has received the dreaded “not recommended” tag, or a way to reach out to them.

Yelp provides a general description of how they reach a decision to not recommend a review.  Mentioned several times in this material is that the confidence that Yelp places in the individual making the review is a major factor.  That is, does the person have a wide on-line presence otherwise, which tends to validate that they are a really person.  And has the person written additional reviews on Yelp that have received endorsements from readers, again providing confidence that this is a real person who writes dependable reviews.

The number of friends that a review has on Yelp is one factor that’s included in he algorithm.  So if the business owner recognizes a customer who has written a review, the business owner could search for that person in Yelp and invite that person to become a Yelp friend.  That will increase the number of Yelp friends the person has, and the chance of the review being recommended, especially if the business owner has a lot of Yelp friends.

But in the longer run the best remedy for “not recommended” reviews is to have lots of good reviews, so that a few that are not recommended will not become an issue.

Negative Reviews

We all know that the Internet is full of trolls who love to be critical, sometimes destructively so.   What should be done about a negative review that the business owner thinks is unfairly critical?

First, there’s a little gray flag below each review that lets the business owner (or anyone else) report it to Yelp as being unfair, and a menu of reasons why it’s unfair.  Will this help?  Who knows?  But the ten seconds that it takes to click the link and confirm the choice is a reasonable investment.

Second, for a recommended review, Yelp provides a way to get in touch with the reviewer.  Each negative review is an opportunity for the business to reach out to that disaffected person–who, no doubt, is telling friends the same story–and turn that person into an advocate.  A message to the disaffected customer that the company is concerned about the review and would like to set things straight, and then following up on the opportunity to take action, can both eliminate some who is hurting the business and create a new advocate who recommends the business.

The Bottom Line

1.  In order to survive and prosper in the connected age, delight your customers so that they eagerly recommend you to their friends and colleagues and on Yelp and other social networks.

2.  Respond with compassion and generosity to negative reviews, converting  detractors into advocates.

 

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