Yelp Swimming Upstream with ‘No Review Solicitation’ Rule

The SMB awareness of online reviews and their impact is such that savvy small businesses are now fretting about how to get more of them and increase the likelihood that they’re good ones at that. However review solicitation is a practice that Yelp frowns up and will punish and Google has given mixed signals about, at least as it pertains to testimonials (which are almost always solicited).

Google was scraping testimonials from SMB websites and including them in Place Pages but, as Mike Blumenthal recently reported, that practice may or may not be still going on. Google appears a bit uncertain about how to handle it because of potential credibility issues.

Recently I was speaking to an acupuncturist friend and he was lamenting the lack of reviews for him on Google and Yelp but saying he was uncomfortable asking his clients to review him. Another friend whose wife is a hair stylist was telling me his wife has two reviews on Google: one great and one highly negative. He was concerned about how to handle the negative review and how to get more reviews overall.

These are two anecdotes but they reflect that SMBs are increasingly focused on their online reputations. By contrast, here’s what Yelp recently said in one of its online missives to SMB members:

Ultimately Yelp is correct; the best social media strategy is great customer service. But many SMBs want faster results and understandably want to take greater control of the process.

Accordingly Yelp may be increasingly “swimming upstream” when it comes to SMB attitudes about reviews. Many SMBs will solicit them and even reward them — in the same way that often one sees this kind of thing: “$2 off if you Like us on Facebook.”

Beyond this, SMBs continue to monitor their online reputations (those that do) the “old fashioned way” by conducting vanity searches, visiting selected sites (e.g., Yelp) or using “alerts.” Indeed, a majority of SMBs, according to survey data we just pulled from the field (n=8,500 SMBs), don’t know about or use the formal reputation monitoring products in the market:

  • Vendasta’s StepRep
  • Marchex
  • Yellowbot
  • Yext
  • Rateitall
  • MyRepMan
  • Others

Among SMBs responding to the question “How do you monitor online discussion or reviews of your business?” 26% of respondents said “Google Alerts,” 15% said Yelp and 42% said “none of the above.” The remaining 17% were almost evenly distributed across the range of products mentioned above.

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21 Responses to “Yelp Swimming Upstream with ‘No Review Solicitation’ Rule”

  1. Tweets that mention Yelp Swimming Upstream with ‘No Review Solicitation’ Rule -- Topsy.com says at

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Greg Sterling, Andrew Shotland, Adam Dorfman, afullerview, Michael Bailey and others. Michael Bailey said: RT @gsterling: Yelp Swimming Upstream with ‘No Review Solicitation’ Rule http://bit.ly/faFVyO […]

  2. Perry says at

    It’s a fine line, indeed. Businesses have relied for decades on testimonials from satisfied customers. To suggest that it’s “inappropriate” for businesses to request that happy customers express their support is equal parts naive and overbearing.

    As media becomes heavily conversational, and business become more connected, finding ways to engage and leverage your best customers is just smart business. With Facebook now giving businesses a way to convert comments into ads, this trend is rapidly in formation.

    A paid review is clearly inappropriate (or at least should require disclosure), but in today’s world where offers and check-in rewards are feeling more and more mainstream, the lines will be much harder to define, track and “enforce”.

    Policy enforcement feels like a whack-a-mole solution, and in my experience, the moles invariably win and the whacker looks foolish.

    Consumers and communities are quite capable of seeing through junk and sponsored review content, and businesses who act stupidly will learn the hard way. In my opinion, you empower the community to flag and question sponsorship practices and it will find it’s own middle ground.

  3. Greg Sterling says at

    Thanks Perry. Agree that there’s lots of gray here. Qui pro quos should be verboten but I think it’s OK to say “if you liked my service feel free to review me on . . .”

  4. Ted Paff says at

    Thanks for the post Greg.  While I recognize that I am biased, the “don’t solicit reviews” stance that some take makes no sense to me.  

    Although I have not seen any data on this, I am guessing that the sentiment distribution in the reviews of a company that actively solicits feedback more closely match the actual sentiment distribution of the total customer population.  People at the top and bottom end of sentiment distribution tend to be more self-motivated to share feedback.  Feedback solicitation tends to give voice to those in the middle.  For most businesses, that is the large majority of their customers and the resulting reviews are positive but not effusive.

    It is more entertaining to read reviews at the ends of the sentiment distribution curve.  However, that doesn’t make the reviews that most closely match the population average “artificial or spammy”.

  5. Greg Sterling says at

    The question is ultimately the credibility or authenticity of the review.

  6. Ted Paff says at

    Agreed.  But inviting a real customer to leave a review results in feedback that is by definition authentic.

  7. sp says at

    Ted,
    I think the point is that if every business “invites” customers to leave an authentic review, then all businesses are going to have positive reviews. It’s self-selecting (“Hey real customer, if you liked your service today, we’d love to hear about it on Yelp!) and therefore only benefits the business – not the person using Yelp/Google/Review Site X.

    Also Ted, it looks like your website makes money by farming reviews… so you have an axe to grind – http://www.customerlobby.com/index/why-reviews

    “Protect your business: Get good reviews by
    inviting happy customers to write reviews.”

    So… yeah.

  8. Ted Paff says at

    @sp
    Very fair point, my company helps businesses get reviews online so I clearly have a point of view.

    That noted, why does it follow that inviting your customers to write a review will skew the sample away from the actual distribution of sentiment?  I don’t dispute that inviting reviews will tend to generate a greater percentage of positive reviews but I am suggesting that it is more likely to result in a sample distribution that is closer to the total population.  

  9. Jim Morris says at

    In the product review business, it’s very common, in fact a best practice, to ask your customers to write a review about a product they’ve purchased. We encourage all of our clients to send this type of email to their customers to generate review volume and better yet engage their customers beyond the usual marketing email.

    Asking your users to write reviews on a regular basis is really akin to surveying people for their opinions. The vast majority of our customers (speaking for PowerReviews) accept our neutral moderation policy that basically screens for constructiveness. Some clients will give out coupons but I find the resulting reviews to be short and not as useful.

    To just wait for unsolicited reviews would leave your business subject to manipulators like what’s been called the Digg effect where 50% of your content is provided by 100 people but consumed by millions. The survey approach turns everybody into a reviewer which is great for folks wanting to find reviews. Assuming that Yelp isn’t deleting negative reviews, anybody who asks for reviews will get both.

    Note that most reviews are positive (at least in America) so it’s not as much of a ballot stuffing issue as people think. Also, how could solicitation equal testimonials since these SMBs don’t control moderation and publishing of reviews? For our clients we work with them closely to publish all constructive reviews. Consumers can sniff out stinky situations pretty fast and so these testimonials disguised as reviews don’t generally convince anyone. 

    When it comes to paid reviews or reviews by staff or affiliated people, these reviews MUST be disclosed legally and morally. We have “staff” badges and the like for these situations. Most people want information and can handle the nuances as long as things are disclosed properly.

    BTW, getting perfect distribution of sentiment is not easy. The vast majority is a silent one who consumes information and rares provides any in return. Every effort to turn each member of the silent majority to the vocal side helps us all get the information we want.

  10. John Bixby says at

    What most people here are missing is that there are ways of teasing out solicited reviews. You can tell when a review isn’t genuine; it lavishes an unrealistic amount of praise on a business, the viewer typically has low friend and review counts, etc. You can also easily tell the reverse, when a rival business solicits negative reviews of its competitors.

    The way around this problem from Yelp’s perspective is to simply offer filters that allow a user to choose to only view aggregate ratings based on reviews from users in their network or a certain social layer beyond their immediate network, to filter by only displaying reviews from Yelp Elite members, etc.

    It’s not an impossible problem. If Yelp and other review sites put better tools in place to allow users to filter out these spammy reviews, then SMB’s would be heavily disincentivized to go out and solicit the spammy reviews in the first place.

  11. Tom says at

    > You can tell when a review isn’t genuine; it lavishes an unrealistic
    > amount of praise on a business, the viewer typically has low friend
    > and review counts, etc. You can also easily tell the reverse, when
    > a rival business solicits negative reviews of its competitors.

    No, John, even you can’t tell. You can only detect the clumsy ones.

    There are more than a few Yelp addicts out there who get their jollies out of their ability to hurt businesses for imagined slights. I have a client who has probably lost six figures due to an utterly false review that followed extortionate demands. The Yelper is a really nasty piece of work who knew her false review would do great damage…and it has.

    But I’m quite sure you couldn’t tell the review was all lies — the woman wrote the “review” cleverly and has more Yelp ‘trust signals’ than you would believe.

  12. Ron k. says at

    Yelp is a service that thrives off of bad reviews and kvetchy customers. It’s unbelievable that a business like Yelp is even legal to operate. Their methods pretty much promote negative reviews while filtering out bad reviews. Furthermore, someone who really has it out for a business can just login to Yelp and write a bad review about a service which can be absolutely devastating for the business. The owner is left helpless because anything he writes back is viewed as defensive – and the customer is always right. Bad comments are bad for business – whether you can tell they are fake or not. I’m willing to bet that most users don’t analyze whether a comment is fake or not…they just see the comment. In any event we help a lot of these customers at the review buster fix up their bad reviews.

  13. Phil says at

    Isn’t this a modern day example of Newton’s Law of Motion? Consumers drive the creation of review websites for services and products, businesses send happy clients to leave glowing reviews.

  14. Ryan Fritzky says at

    Reputation and presence management products are increasingly becoming a core component of online marketing suites for small businesses.  In our view, small businesses are responding well to Marchex’s product as evident by the uptake and usage.  I haven’t talked to too many businesses who wouldn’t want to receive an email notification when they receive a review or social mention (or have access to a unified view online of their review or social media activity) instead of stumbling upon it a month later when they finally get around doing some manual searches.  
    On the subject of review solicitation, we’ve talked to many small businesses who regularly ask their customers to write reviews online rather than send them thank you cards.  As long as reviews and social comments continue to impact a business’ bottom-line, small business will want to ensure the opinions of their satisfied customers are being voiced online.  

  15. John Bixby says at

    Ted, I can. And it’s not hard. Your outlook is laughably paranoid. And if a business is any good, one negative review isn’t going to hurt it in the long run. Do you think 1 negative review hurt Urasawa in LA? Here’s a link: http://www.yelp.com/biz/urasawa-beverly-hills

    Do you know why it didn’t hurt them? Because for any decent business, 1 review is a single data point that becomes lost in the noise when you accumulate a certain critical mass of reviews, which a business will over time if it’s any good.

    Do you really think Urasawa’s positive reviews all came from people the business actively solicited/encouraged to say nice things about them? 

    Ron K – I don’t think you have the data to back up the claim that review sites thrive off of bad reviews. If you do, I’d love to see it. Review sites are a valuable tool for business owners. A negative review is an opportunity – to improve your business and address customer criticism. Nothing stops a business owner from reaching out to a customer who wrote a negative review and attempting to address their concerns. I’ve seen this happen time and time again, and often the user goes back and updates their negative review to a more positive one. 

  16. Tom says at

    John Bixby: It’s Tom, not Ted. And sorry to interrupt your preening for future clients, but you are kidding yourself. You could not spot this one.

    BTW, there are low-volume, high-ticket businesses that can be badly damaged by a single negative review. And a place’s first review gets extra attention. This chick knew that.

    And Urasawa is a specious example. It gets an avalanche of publicity everywhere.

    Most businesses are not so lucky.

  17. Google Hotpot takes a stand in Portland « reDesign mobile says at

    […] of my eye and asked the bartender to see more. The coasters only have Google branding. Unlike Yelp, which punishes businesses for soliciting reviews, Google seems to be encouraging […]

  18. Is Yelp Too Rigid with Reviews? says at

    […] written in the past that Yelp is now “swimming upstream” in discouraging SMBs from asking their customers for reviews. Increasingly the advice coming from multiple places to SMBs is “invite your customers to […]

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  21. Review Systems: Ask or Wait? | Reviews and Reputation Marketing says at

    […] by its nature, is more likely to be representative of the total customer base (this is an argument I have made before).  However, broad solicitation can be difficult.  How can you include non-internet-savvy […]

  22. cproductreviews.com says at

    It’s really hard to tell the “fake” reviews from the real ones. How about if they ask for a scan of the receipt? Will this work?

  23. Greg Sterling says at

    There are in fact ways to tell fake from legitimate reviews: whether the source has other reviews, the detail associated with the review and the type of language used — among others.

  24. jo says at

    There is a fine line, but when it is crossed it makes me very uncomfortable. I hope that everyone would react with disgust to this facebook post I just saw: “vote for us on urbanspoon! Write a positive review, print it and bring it in for 10% off!”

  25. Greg Sterling says at

    @Jo I understand business owners’ impulses to do something like this. They’re frustrated and want more control. However, a better approach is to do the best job they can in their day to day operation and say something general like “if you like us give us a good review online.” 

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