Yelp Goes Undercover: Naughty Businesses get Caught Incentivizing Reviews

No one likes getting caught with their business pants down, but this week the review company Yelp.com made their own sting operation and announced their perpetrators.

Yelp Consumer Alert 

It all happened on a dark, chilly, October night (except maybe not so chilly because some of the busting happened in San Diego). Yelp had been running the undercover job for weeks, scanning craigslist for companies promising upwards of $200 to Yelp “elite” users to write false reviews for their business.

Yelp Craigslist PostYelp has been very tight with their restrictions on reviews over the years and has an aggressive “filter” that inexplicably removes good or bad reviews at will, leaving business owners frustrated and helpless. Calling a Yelp representative will historically result in Yelp confirming that nothing can be done, no explanation as to why a removal happened or how to prevent one in the future, and will instead offer packages that you can buy to enhance your Yelp profile. 

Yelp also has the opinion that you should not solicit reviews, and even asking people to leave reviews for you is not a good idea. One consistency found is that reviews left by a customer who has never left a review on Yelp.com before will be immediately taken off of the account. Some claim that only 1 out of every 5 reviews passes the filter test and becomes live. In this way, it is only the “elite” Yelpers (People who write reviews on Yelp constantly) whose input really counts, which is why companies are now so desperate to pay for them. Here below is one of the letters from a company that was discovered cheating the system.

Yelp Evidence Letter 

In many cases, just going up half a star point can mean lots of new foot traffic in the door.  In fact, a 2012 Local Consumer Review Survey found that 72% of consumers surveyed said they trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations, and 52% said that positive online reviews make them more likely to use a local business. With a playing field such as this, it is not surprising that some companies choose not to play fair.

So what’s the final damage? Yelp has a zero tolerance policy, and they are putting the hurt on. They focused on 8 businesses who went above and beyond the call of cheating, and have placed warnings on their profiles of using the business as a reliable source due to their solicitation of reviews. How permanent these warnings are is unknown at the time. But a Yelp spokesperson sent a statement saying “As we find more, we will put consumer alert notices on their pages, as well.”

The moral to this story? Never incentivize for reviews no matter how desperate your situation, it is knowingly against policy and can cause irrevocable harm to a small business. This is not a new concept; the same quality standards are consistent across most platforms including Google+, Amazon, Angie’s List, and more.  The best thing you can do to grow your company’s online reputation is to provide an excellent service, treat your customers well, and let them know where they can provide you with feedback.