It was around 2009 when the review website ‘Yelp’ was first brought to my attention. I thought it looked interesting, so I signed up for an account and began to make reviews here and there. My first posts were mostly negative reviews of places where I’d had bad experiences. But, as I read more reviews posted by other people, my own reviews changed… I found myself enjoying giving praise to places where I’d had good experiences. I was beginning to enjoy Yelp, and I even started a profile for my own business. Yet, as much as I held Yelp in high regard, and as much as I saw (and still see) so much promise in the website, it took Yelp itself to ruin that experience and the promise turned to reproach.
In March of 2012 I received a call from Jill, a Yelp salesperson, offering me an ‘opportunity’ to advertise with Yelp. At first the opportunity seemed interesting to me. As the owner of a DJ Entertainment Company, I had already been advertising with WeddingWire and TheKnot for several years now. Both of those wedding-focused websites offer brides the opportunity to write reviews about their experience with our company and services. So my thought was that Yelp might be a great way to extend that same opportunity to our Bar and Bat Mitzvah, Sweet Sixteen and Corporate event clients. Even better, Yelp came up very high in the search engines for reviews; so again, it ‘seemed’ to be an interesting opportunity.
I told Jill I would need some time to think about things, and would take a closer look at Yelp over the next few weeks, and she ‘seemed’ to understand. That’s when things started to go downhill.
I did my due diligence, and researched Yelp online, and what I found was discouraging. What I found was article after article and news story after news story about how Yelp used extortion tactics to sell advertising, and all sorts of class action lawsuits against Yelp for doing so. Here are just a few…
Since most of these articles centered on Yelp filtering out bad reviews in connection with purchased advertising, and I had a stellar five-star rating, I felt – foolishly – that this scenario did not apply to me or my business. I also felt – again foolishly – that it made no sense for Yelp to engage in such suspect activity, as it would only damage their online reputation. So I went ahead and began to ask our past clients to review us on Yelp, which they were more than happy to do. Jill, the Yelp salesperson, even went so far as to send emails congratulating me on the new reviews we received, again asking if I was ready to become an advertiser.
It was when I said I needed more time that the real trouble began…
Suddenly, my five-star reviews began to be filtered… eight of them in the course of one week.
I promptly picked up the phone, asking Jill why this was happening, and her response was both weak and unapologetic. “Well, we don’t encourage our users to solicit reviews”. She went on to say that the Yelp filter was arbitrary, and she was incredibly vague on how it all worked, and would only say that she could do nothing about the filtered reviews. She then continued to push the sales tactic – going so far as to suggest I would be foolish not to advertise – as if I would spend money advertising with a review website that penalized me for getting good reviews!
So for the record; Yelp is a ‘review website’, that wants me to spend money advertising, while they ‘filter’ my good reviews.
After expressing my disappointment with Yelp, both to Jill and on Twitter, I was contacted via email by someone named Darnell, who identified himself as Yelp’s Manager of Local Business Outreach. Here is what Darnell had to say:
I’m Yelp’s Manager of Local Business Outreach. I saw your tweets, and if you have the time tomorrow, I would like to discuss your experience with our sales team and any suggestions you have on how we can improve. We train our sales staff to always respect the local businesses we work with, and so are disappointed that our sales process rubbed you the wrong way. Beyond that it’s important to point out that reviews and advertising are completely separate on Yelp, and whether or not a business decides to buy advertising has no correlation with how reviews are displayed on that businesses page. Please let me know several times you have available tomorrow for a quick call.
Yes, my experience does suggest that reviews and advertising are separate… so separate that they are actually working at cross-purposes.
I clicked on the link in Darnell’s email, and was put off immediately by the first paragraph, which read:
As a part of our ongoing efforts to educate the business community…
Wow, really? Sort of pretentious don’t you think? I then clicked on the video, which went on to explain that their filters were in place to prevent businesses from creating reviews about their own companies. That’s a fair enough goal I suppose… but not only does Yelp’s filter system unfairly mark some reviews as suspect (a significant problem in its own right) but it also marks the business’s page with the blemish of a link declaring the number of reviews that have been filtered.
So in effect, Yelp’s ‘filter’ is actually a flagging system. It tells anyone that happens upon our profile that our business has been flagged as being suspect of unscrupulously reviewing ourselves. And that is simply not the case.
Clearly, and simply, Yelp’s filter does not work.
If the Yelp ‘filter’ did work, it would employ an IP filter – like so many other review websites use. An IP Address or ‘Internet Protocol Address’ is a numerical label assigned to each device (computer, printer, etc) to identify it, therefore preventing a business from reviewing itself. But, as Jill had told me, Yelp’s filter is arbitrary… which by definition means “determined by chance, whim, or impulse, and not by reason or principle”.
I will say it again… Yelp’s filter system does not work.
In the meantime, other than hiding behind links to text explanations and cute little videos, Darnell – the Yelp representative – has not responded to my emails in over a week. Darnell and I have never spoken on the phone.
And the irony of it all is that while Yelp struggles to defend their own online reputation against claims of unethical practices, they ‘arbitrarily’ damage the online reputation of my own business by incorrectly flagging legitimate reviews and making my business appear suspect.
If Yelp is a review website, and a legitimate customer cannot review us without having their review flagged, Yelp does not work. Yelp is broken.
Oddly enough, one cannot review Yelp on Yelp.