Mike Hanbery July 3, 2014

Online Comments: Positive and Negative Reviews on Yelp

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Our Denver social media for business group has been abuzz with angry accusations from business owners and marketing managers about Yelp manipulating comments to punish businesses that reject their aggressive ad sales push.

The Yelp Online Comments Algorithm
It is doubtful Yelp manipulates online comments. While some business owners may have noticed an apparent correlation between refusal or cancellation of Yelp advertising and a change in the makeup of Yelp online comments, this is probably more of a coincidence in timing and a lack of understanding on the part of businesses how Yelp’s algorithm works. Our studies of Yelp and the reviews it shows indicate Yelp actually does enforce the integrity of its reviews algorithm.

Algorithms are sophisticated equations that are unlikely to be capable of the type of manipulation of which they are accused, i.e. a vindictive salesperson cannot click a button to override the algorithm’s results on a single listing.

How Fake Profiles Impact Online Comments
A black hat tactic that undoubtedly does have success beating the Yelp algorithm involves the creation of fake profiles.

(This isn’t just Yelp. Google and Facebook encounter the same tactic. If your business is ever approached by an Online Reputation Management (ORM) company who claims they can generate positive online reviews, ask if their system involves the creation or use of fake profiles. If it does, please contact Webolutions instead.)

These black hat tactics succeed because they craft sophisticated systems wherein multiple fake profiles are generated and disguised. Fake profiles have names, pictures and addresses. They connect with each other. They leave a variety of reviews. On Facebook, they “like” pages, “friend” each other and join groups. This makes it difficult for social networks to distinguish fake profiles from real ones, and accusations exist that Facebook, in particular, knowingly leaves fake profiles on the network because of another behavior they exhibit designed to cloak their true nature—they also click on advertisements.

Webolutions has had success in appealing to Yelp to remove fake profiles. As part of our Online Reputation Management services, we monitor online reviews on any number of websites, the most active of which is usually Yelp. On several occasions, we’ve encountered negative reviews describing experiences that revealed the profile to be fake. Indicators include:

  • There is not a similar name in the company’s Contact Resource Management (CRM) system
  • Similar services were not performed on or around that date
  • Industry jargon is used in the review
  • The reviewing profile has no picture
  • The reviewing profile has left only one review
  • Timing indicates the profile was created expressly for the purpose of leaving the negative review.

In these circumstances, Webolutions has found Yelp to be receptive to the appeal and quick to act.

Another reason Yelp’s filtering of reviews doesn’t always seem to be equitable or consistent is that its algorithm is developed by people and, is therefore, imperfect.

Yelp is a social network.
Yelp was among the first entities to realize social media is about valuable content and engagement and is the industry leader in applying those facts to its algorithm. Yelpers, as they are called, are rewarded with exposure and influence for publishing reviews others rate as useful, funny or cool.

Factors that matter to Yelp regarding its reviewers include:

  • The length of time a profile has been on the network.
  • The amount of activity a profile generates: Quantity of reviews created, quantity of ratings of others, quantity of reviews others rated as useful, funny or cool, number of connections (friends) in the network, check-ins, adding photos.
  • The range of reviews, i.e. a profile providing a range of 1-, 2-, 3-, 4- and 5-star reviews is more likely to have more reviews published than one who has contributed only 1-star (negative) or 5-star (positive) reviews.
  • Overall frequency, consistency and recentness of the activity

Some businesses are, to their ultimate detriment, taking an overly defensive stance against negative online comments.

Managing Negative Online Comments: The Wrong Thing to Do
According to a 2013 study conducted by MIT and Northwestern University, those most likely to leave negative online comments tend to be the business’s most loyal customers, and the most likely impetus for the negative review is a change—in a product, a service, terms…something that detracts from the dependability of the overall experience.

Good customers, Webolutions believes, tell you when something falls short of expectations. They give you the opportunity to correct the situation. “Bad” customers walk away and, instead of saying something to you, just tell everyone else.

Some businesses are writing into the fine print of their service contracts that their customers forfeit, under threat of a lawsuit, their right to post negative online comments. The tactic cannot succeed.

The assumption here is that if we squelch the conversation online, the conversation will stop. Anyone believing this is too stupid to remain in business. This communicates not just a lack of understanding of the ubiquitous, interactive nature of today’s Internet; it communicates a complete lack of understanding of how business works.

This is what happens when businesses make the mistake of listening to lawyers instead of their customers. No future exists for those businesses who place themselves on the opposite side of the table from their customers. Instead, adopt policies and procedures for interacting with online commentors.

How to Generate Positive Online Comments on Yelp
The best way to generate positive online comments and avoid negative ones on Yelp and everywhere is to provide the best possible experience in real life at every touch point.

Remember that most of the people who connect with your business on social media already have a relationship with you. Occasionally, include prompts to review your business on Yelp in your content publishing plan.

Create a custom tab on your business’s Facebook page linking to your Yelp page.

In-store signage – Businesses can create one on their own, but Yelp offers a sanctioned People Love Us on Yelp sticker to businesses who qualify. Qualification is based on history and overall rating. Stickers are sent out once per year and are accompanied by a letter of commendation. That commendation is suitable for content in social media and online press releases.

Existing Customer Engagement Emails – Webolutions has created email marketing systems in which each customer receives an email inquiring about the experience. Poor responses initiate direct contact from the business—thereby likely preventing the creation of negative online reviews and, much more importantly, improving the relationship with an already-acquired customer—and positive responses generate a request to leave an online comment, including a link to a single targeted online comment site. This might be Yelp, Google or a more industry-focused site like TripAdvisor, depending on a number of factors.

It should be noted that Yelp demonstrates a proclivity to filter reviews when a lot of them are received in a short period of time. In that case, it may take a few to several weeks for some or all of those reviews to show up. Again, that’s not human manipulation; its a function of the Yelp algorithm.

How to Use this Information
Successful businesses will define, create and enforce a culture centered on the customer experience. They will empower their employees to resolve issues. They will communicate with their customers frequently, expressing appreciation at every opportunity.

To present your business in the best possible light online, provide a remarkable experience in the real world and use these systems to maximize your online reputation.

And you can stop worrying about upsetting the person on the phone trying to sell you Yelp advertising.

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