Turning What Could Be the Biggest Online Marketing Frustration Review Site ‘Yelp’ Into a Tool For Recruiting New Customers

John Beilharz, President JB Communications

John Beilharz, President JB Communications

MediWebPR & JB Communication’s comprehensive Online Image Management Program offers long-term integrated marketing strategies to help physicians and practices develop healthy images that deliver positive first impressions to prospective patients. Understanding how Yelp works is just one aspect of that strategy.

As part of an overall marketing suite, JB Communications oversees a comprehensive image management program for each client. “An integral component of this process involves inviting patients of physician clients to read online reviews from other patients and to provide honest reviews of their own, if they are so inclined,” explained John Beilharz, PhD, President of JB Communications. A few of the review sites include UcompareHealthcare, Vitals, HealthGrades and of course, Yelp. “Of all of the review sites, Yelp proves to be the most tragic and difficult to work with, and the one patients and physicians complain about the most.” JB Communication clients are not the only ones experiencing strained relations with Yelp.

What Are Those Yelpers Yelping About?

Anyone who owns a business and a website probably knows all about Yelp, whether that might be selling pizzas, barbering men’s hairstyles or running a busy doctor’s clinic. The ironic thing about Yelp is that a business can’t opt out of Yelp and Yelp will not remove a business page once it’s established. From their perspective, all Yelp pages belong to Yelp. This can be a problem for businesses that choose to ignore Yelp altogether, particularly if their Yelp listing is the first thing that pops up on search engines, and if it’s cluttered with negative reviews. There is very little control over which reviews are featured on a page, unless – according to some sources – the business opts into Yelp’s ad scheme. For business owners who are concerned about keeping up online appearances, Yelp can be a real pain in the SEO. And, we will tell you why that is, but first a little background.

Yelp is the brain child of two former Paypal employees and was launched more than a decade ago in 2004. The online review company didn’t actually become profitable until 2014. According to Wikipedia Yelp has 132 million monthly visitors and features a whopping 57 million reviews and growing. Today the company’s revenues come from businesses on the site choosing to advertise – or according to some sources – being intimidated into paying to advertise *.

But no matter how it happens, Yelp’s revenues come from selling ads and sponsored listings to small businesses. At the same time they severely restrict the management of those coveted reviews while going to great lengths to appear to be sticklers on how reviews appear on a page. They get really ticked off when businesses pay people to leave positive reviews. And, that actually makes sense.

Consumers Leaving Reviews is a Good Thing, Right?

One might think that the idea of hosting a site for consumers to share their thoughts about encounters with all sorts of businesses in a public way would be a good idea. After all, it’s a good thing when people have a place to sound off about their favorite and not-so-favorite businesses. And it only makes sense that as long as no one tampers with those reviews, then people who are interested in learning about a particular business will be able to sort out for themselves what rings true and what doesn’t. But, Yelp doesn’t seem to see it that way – and to some extent it seems like filtering reviews is part of a complicated marketing scheme aimed at generating more ad sales — and there is a growing unrest among business owners pertaining to this hot topic.

As of April 2014 the Federal Trade Commission revealed that they have received over 2000 complaints about Yelp’s aggressive marketing practices since 2008, including allegations that Yelp buries positive reviews and displays negative ones as a selling tool, forcing more businesses to pay for advertising. The Wall Street Journal also reported last April that Yelp is hit with about six subpoenas per month requesting reviewer (aka ‘Yelper’) information. Many of these relate to businesses who feel they have been falsely reviewed in a negative way.

According to many unsatisfied business owners, when they do pay up for advertising, Yelp is oh-so quick to help improve that business presence on Yelp, which apparently includes selling ad space to them on competitor pages. However, if they cancel, those coveted good reviews mysteriously filter to the bottom of the page into the “not recommended” bin thereby hidden from all but the most astute Yelp review reader. Yelp insists that the ‘filtering’ is all due to their superior software, which is, of course, designed to keep reviews on the level. Meanwhile, Yelp contends that its sales staff does not have the ability to modify reviews and that changes in the reviews are caused by its automated review filter.

Filtering is all about having a Yelp Account

Every day, Yelp’s automated software (aka ‘review filter’) examines every review and supposedly flags around 20 percent of that day’s comments, which then drops into an invisibly linked section at the bottom of business listings called ‘not recommended’.

The bad news is that Yelp’s automated software also filters out the vast majority of honest, heart-felt reviews posted by real people who have the misfortune of not being a frequent Yelp user. Ultimately, anyone who has very few to no other reviews and/or no Yelp ‘friends’ will not qualify for their reviews to be auto-loaded to a business page, no matter how fair or positive it is. There is some evidence that short to-the-point reviews will also be filtered out since Yelp seems to think one long rant is worth a dozen short positive reviews relegated to the ‘not recommended’ bin.

“When it comes to Yelp, it’s not about what the review says about a business. It’s not about the words that are used (although they do tend to delete anything written with unsavory language) or how perfectly everything is spelled,” said Beilharz. “It’s only about whether or not the Yelper has a Yelp account and with that – a long history of leaving reviews. So, for business owners with happy customers willing to share their positive experiences with Yelp – if they don’t have an existing Yelp account – for the love of fair ratings don’t ask them to open an account just to review your business on Yelp, because more than likely it will just be an exercise in futility.”

How to Win With Yelp

The best way to deal with Yelp is to play along by claiming the business listing and by providing the most accurate information possible about location, contact information, photos of the business, etc. And then monitor any new reviews with an eye to the critical for those negative reviews that fits into their ‘flagging’ protocol:

  • It contains false information
  • It’s a fake
  • It doesn’t describe a personal consumer experience
  • It uses offensive language or contains a personal attack
  • It violates Yelp’s privacy standards
  • It contains promotional material
  • It’s for the wrong business

Responding to all reviews, both positive and negative is also possible for businesses that have ‘claimed’ their Yelp page. It seems that there might be some benefit in commenting on good reviews, and possibly even bad reviews.

“If people want to leave a negative rant, they are much more likely to think twice once they see that someone from that business is probably going to respond to any review they might leave,” said Beilharz. The trick about business owners leaving comments is to make sure that what is said is generalized as much as possible and that the consumer is invited to visit the establishment again to either discuss the matter further or to see how things have changed. “After all,” he adds, “… you’re not responding so much for the sake of the reviewer as you are for people reading those reviews who are your potential new customers, clients or patients.”

Yelp is Only One Small Part of the Bigger Picture

Managing Yelp reviews only goes so far. Perhaps the best thing a small business can do is make sure that Yelp is not the only review site that their business is listed on. The best defense is a making sure your web presence is strong beginning with a well-designed and carefully maintained website that includes regularly blog/article posts, and that all social media aspects are constantly nurtured and tended to including Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus.

About JB Communications & MediWebPR

MediWebPR clients enjoy the healthy benefits of acquiring new patients from targeted audiences, retaining existing patients, developing and maintaining high search engine rankings, as well as maintaining current, accurate information about physicians and practices on local affiliated hospitals’ websites. MediWebPR offers these and other online tools for medical clients to provide them with a comprehensive online presence necessary for today’s successful medical marketing plan. To learn more visit our website at www.mediwebpr.com.


*What is Yelp? An impartial review site or an aggressive ad company? http://seattletimes.com/html/opinion/2022688527_terrythomasopedyelp17xml.html

Yelp Regularly Gets Subpoenas About Users – FTC Says It Has Received 2,046 Complaints Since 2008 http://www.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303847804579477644289822928

Wikipedia – Yelp: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yelp

Yelp Content Guidelines: http://www.yelp.com/guidelines