Whether you like it or not, if you own a local business, it’s probably listed on Yelp. That’s because the popular review site allows any registered member to update information on your business and leave a review. With a huge database of over 184 million reviews worldwide, millions of consumers trust Yelp to see which businesses are available in their area and how they rate compared to their competitors.
But a few quirks about how the site works and how it displays reviews can have a huge impact on whether or not potential customers give you their business or if they can even find you. When these quirks don’t swing in your favor, the results can hurt your bottom line, sometimes dramatically. One Harvard Business Study review found that even a one-star increase on Yelp leads to a 5 – 9% increase in revenue.
Unfortunately, there have been numerous accusations that overzealous Yelp representatives actually pressure business owners to pay for advertising by suppressing good reviews and boosting bad ones.
While most of these accusations are unconfirmed or have even been dismissed by a court, it’s important to be aware of them. We’ve combed the web for real Yelp experiences from business owners and uncovered some disturbing stories that every local business owner needs to be aware of.
Just to be clear, we’re not here to bash Yelp. There are huge benefits businesses can glean from their Yelp listings. Smart businesses know how to use sites like Yelp to their advantage.
More on that later. First, let’s check out the horror stories.
Dentist Ordered to Pay $81,000 in Legal Fees
A San Francisco area dentist thought she was doing the right thing when she brought a lawsuit against Yelp and the parents of a 6-year-old patient for what she believed was an inaccurate review.
According to the court filing, the parents’ review implied the dentist had not informed them about mercury in a filling their child received, improperly used a general anesthetic, and overlooked several cavities during the exam.
Here’s the full text of the review:
“1 star rating…
Let me first say I wish there is [sic] ‘0’ star in Yelp rating. Avoid her like a disease! My son went there for two years. She treated two cavities plus the usual cleaning. She was fast, I mean really fast. I won’t necessarily say that is a bad thing, but my son was light headed for several hours after the filling. So we decided to try another dentist after half a year. I wish I had gone there earlier. First the new dentist discovered seven cavities. All right all of those appeared during the last half a year.
Second, he would never use the laughing gas on kids, which was the cause for my son’s dizziness. To apply laughing gas is the easiest to the dentist. There is no waiting, no needles. But it is general anesthetic, not local. And general anesthetic harms a kid’s nerve system. Heck, it harms mine too.
Third, the filling [the dentist] used is metallic silver color. The new dentist would only use the newer, white color filling. Why does the color matter? Here is the part that made me really, really angry. The color tells the material being used. The metallic filing, called silver amalgams [sic], has a small trace of mercury in it. The newer composite filling, while costing the dentist more, does not. In addition, it uses a newer technology to embed fluoride to clean the teeth for you. I regret ever going to her office.
P.S. Just want to add one more thing. Dr. Chui, who shares the same office with [this dentist] is actually decent.”
According to the dentist, there were errors in the review regarding the fillings and anesthesia that were damaging to her reputation and practice. What’s worse? She says she actually advised the parents of the mercury and even had them review a safety data sheet before giving written consent. And the general anesthesia more commonly known as laughing gas is really only dangerous with prolonged or chronic abuse.
Both uses of metallic fillings and laughing gas have been deemed safe by the ADA.
In the end, the court ruled against the dentist, because the review only implied that the dentist didn’t warn them of the potential dangers. Yelp was dismissed from the case because of California’s anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) law, which protects discussion on issues of public interest (i.e., mercury in dental fillings).
The anti-SLAPP law was especially devastating to the dentist because it allowed Yelp and the parents to recover legal fees in the amount of $80,714. Talk about a “slapp” in the face.
Small Businesses File Class Action Suit And Are Denied Justice
In a 2013 class action lawsuit, 4 small businesses in San Francisco challenged Yelp’s advertising sales practices which included review manipulation as a “bargaining tool.” The business owners called it extortion and claimed Yelp sales reps offered to suppress bad reviews and highlight good reviews if they purchased advertising packages.
When each business refused, it suffered the opposite effect: Good reviews were suppressed, and they saw a sudden increase in negative reviews (allegedly penned by Yelp employees).
Yelp stated that not all user reviews submitted appear on a business’s Yelp page or remain there after initially appearing. According to them, reviews can be removed in 3 different ways:
- Manually by the reviewer
- Manually by Yelp for violating their “Review Guidelines” or “Terms of Service”
- Automatically by Yelp’s filtering system which is designed to protect both consumers and businesses from fake reviews
Each business owner noticed unexplained removals of positive reviews from their sites shortly after refusing to purchase advertising from Yelp.
The most troubling case of attempted extortion happened to another dentist in the San Francisco area. She claimed she received calls from a Yelp representative “offer[ing] her lots of benefits, such as the opportunity to keep her business ratings high by hiding or burying bad reviews,” but only if she purchased an advertising package. According to this dentist, the Yelp salesperson told her, “although many Yelp reviews were manipulated by a computer system, Yelp employees also had the ability to remove reviews from a business’s Yelp page.”
According to this dentist, the Yelp salesperson told her, “although many Yelp reviews were manipulated by a computer system, Yelp employees also had the ability to remove reviews from a business’s Yelp page.”
The dentist declined to purchase any advertising and saw 9 of her 5-star reviews removed from her page just 2 or 3 days later, dropping her overall rating from 5 to 3 stars — a potential revenue loss of 10 – 18%. When she called Yelp to see what happened, she was again pressured to purchase an advertising package.
Sound a little like deja vu? It did to her too.
So this time, she signed an advertising contract out of fear of further removals of good reviews. In a few days, her overall rating increased to 4 stars and even a few of the missing 5-star reviews magically reappeared.
After a while, she was asked to increase her advertising budget with Yelp. When she declined, she once again noticed her review ratings were dropping. This continued over the next year with odd declines in her ratings and mysterious removals of good reviews, all of which seemed to coincide with specific interactions with Yelp. Eventually, her rating fell to only 3 stars.
The other 3 business owners cited similar experiences with high pressure sales and strange fluctuations in their reviews and ratings.
Ultimately, the class action suit was dismissed because it lacked sufficient evidence to prove Yelp had authored or manipulated the negative reviews and ratings. There was also not enough proof the sales calls amounted to an extortion threat. The court also affirmed Yelp has every right to display or suppress any reviews as it deemed fit.
The court also affirmed Yelp has every right to display or suppress any reviews as it deemed fit.
The moral of these stories? Maybe don’t sue your unhappy customers.
Empanada Maker Flips the Script On Negativity
When the CEO and co-founder of a local Illinois empanada shop received a notice about a negative review on Yelp and Facebook, she was confused. The complaining customer claimed to have gotten food poisoning from eating at her restaurant. Yet no customer had ever reached out to her or her staff about it, and she took great pride in making all her food from scratch with healthy, wholesome ingredients.
The proprietor quickly sprang into action and looked at some of the other social media posts written by the same patron. The customer claimed to suffer from Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) in several posts. Interestingly, common symptoms include abdominal pain and fatigue — both of which can be mistaken for food poisoning.
The business owner reached out to the woman suggesting it might have been a matter of certain types of food aggravating her condition. The woman denied she had any illness despite what she had stated in her other social media posts.
The owner asked Yelp to remove the review and they declined. When asked specifically about reviews that include false claims that could jeopardize a business, a Yelp spokesperson said, “Given their solid 4-star rating and glowing reviews, we would encourage this business owner to focus on their overall rating and not get too caught up in this one review.”
Instead of trying to sue or discredit the woman, the shop owner took the high road by educating herself on what IBD is and made a donation to the Crohns & Colitis Foundation as well as sharing 10% of her net profits during that same month with the foundation.
We call that making lemonade out of lemons.
Here’s what she shared on her Facebook page:
“We are not into smear campaigns, we are better than that. We also don’t play victim very well, BUT doing the good stuff above IS what we do EXTREMELY well. While we focus on pumping out the best empanadas, we wish [our customer] all the best and we hope and pray she can get the help she needs. We hope our efforts can make the world a better place not worse. Whole people, heal people. Hurting people, hurt people.”
Since then, her business has continued to flourish thanks to a feature on Forbes.com, and that 4-star rating has risen to 4.5.
How To Battle Bad Yelp Reviews
While there may not be much you can do to affect Yelp’s review display algorithm, there’s a lot you can do to restore your reputation.
Here are a few things you can do on your own:
- Ask Yelp to remove the review. If you suspect a review may be incorrect or planted by a competitor, contact Yelp and ask them to remove it.
- Reach out to the reviewer, act professionally, and address the issue. Reviewers can modify or even remove their bad review if they have a reason to do so. In fact, this is a golden opportunity to turn an angry customer into a customer for life.
- Improve your review ratings on other sites. Yelp isn’t the only game in town. In fact, Facebook and Google reviews continue to gain influence. If improving your rating on Yelp seems hopeless, try bulking up your reputation on Google and Facebook by actively asking your happy customers to leave you a review. Learn how to get good reviews from your customers.
- Turn it into a positive. Like the empanada shop owner, try to turn that bad review into a positive. If there was constructive criticism, let people know how you’re actively addressing the issue — on Yelp by responding to the review, and through posts on your social media channels.
If all else fails, do what one sandwich shop did in response to a negative Yelp review and make a sign that goes viral. The NYC sandwich shop created an over-the-top sign in response to an over-the-top review from one poster on Yelp and ended up being featured on a number of Instagram users’ feeds and a write up in Huffington Post.