By almost all measures Yelp is doing very well. Yet it has a major and continuing problem: business owner resentment.
Theories that Yelp manipulates reviews to reward or punish SMBs on the basis of whether they advertise doggedly persist — even among sophisticated digital marketers. I continue to see people push these ideas in email and online forums. I was also forwarded a crazy prediction that Yelp would be “gone” in 24 months.
Despite the indignation of a number of people I’ve encountered and who think I’m blind, I’ve not seen any clear evidence that Yelp is manipulating reviews. Indeed, class action lawyers were unsuccessful making this case in court. However it’s a rumor that won’t die, not unlike the “birther” theories of President Obama’s birthplace and religion.
Neal Polachek pointed me to an article in the LA Times that covered a recent Yelp “town hall” in LA. It began as a meeting to promote Yelp to local businesses and allow them to ask questions. It turned into a therapy session for SMBs who wanted to vent their frustration at the site for various reasons, including its controversial review filter:
But the glowing comments from the panel didn’t sit well with the audience, and when the town hall opened up for Q&A an hour and a half later, business owners were quick to vent their frustrations.
Many slammed the company for allowing review posters to write inflammatory comments — one restaurant manager said she cried for three days after a Yelper said her restaurant was filled with Nazis, another said he’d received negative reviews from Yelpers who admitted they’d never tried the food — while others said they had been subjected to aggressive advertising calls from Yelp.
I was not in attendance but the article conveyed frustration, confusion and resentment that many business owners feel toward Yelp. It’s not clear what Yelp can do — beyond much more outreach — to address this. There are some “structural” tensions at the core of Yelp’s business and as long as Yelp relies heavily on conventional advertising as a business model (and it will) those issues will remain.
Yelp has aggressively sought to dispel any notion that its review filter and ad sales are in any way connected. But it can’t seem to get beyond this idea with some business owners. They may not be a majority but they are a vocal minority.
Right now business owners in major US cities cannot ignore Yelp and there’s really no equally powerful competitor — not even Google when it comes to local reviews. But the resentment that many business owners feel toward Yelp is like a tumor that must be addressed or it will continue to grow.