Inc. Magazine Goes Deep on Yelp

Filed in Local Search, Reputation Mgmt. by Matt McGee on January 19, 2010 7 Comments

yelp-logoInc. Magazine has written what’s probably the deepest article/profile of Yelp that I’ve ever read. It touches all the points you’ve probably read before — how small business owners struggle with its power, how they struggle to deal with poor reviews, how Yelp users sometimes use the site as a tool for vengeance, how Yelp is trying to bridge the gap between reviewers and business owners, and so forth.

But there’s also a lot of detail about the costs of Yelp’s business/advertising services, not to mention the bizarre story that leads the article about a small business owner who got in a physical confrontation with one reviewer and ended up falling down the steps outside his apartment. That’s an extreme example of the power struggle that exists on Yelp between reviewers and small business owners. The article sums up the debate well in this bit:

American society has, for more than a century, been defined by corporate power, and the Internet has upset that balance, mostly for the good. When someone sends a Twitter message about his baggage being lost by a large, publicly traded airline — “Delta sucks!” — it’s hard to argue that this is a bad thing. Delta does suck in that instance. And Delta can take it.

But Yelp encourages people to be unsparing in their critiques of companies that can’t take it — companies that are small, independent, and not particularly profitable. The site capitalizes on our impulses to take down the Man, but, in doing so, turns us against mom-and-pop businesses — already hit by globalization, consolidation, and a recession. At its best, Yelp is meritocratic, helping good businesses like Lauren Hart’s to thrive. At its worst, Yelp empowers people who do not need to be empowered at the expense of those who are already struggling.

There’s also a complementary article with some advice for SMBs about how to deal with criticism online.

Comments (7)

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  1. David Mihm says:

    Wow. Fascinating piece. Honestly, though, Matt — I think everything in there has been said before…Inc just used the sensational story of the physical dust-up between the bookstore owner and the Yelper.

    And I have to say, although I am not personally a Yelp fan and side with business owners darn near 100% of the time, this woman deserved to be put out of business:

    “Goodbye pussy boy I will be contacting your employers,” she said. And: “Your mom was a bitch and she didn’t teach you how to behave. That’s why your life is such a mess right now.”

    I loved the story about the salon owner in Phoenix who bought a haircut at a competitive salon for her frustrated customer. That is a great story.

    • Matt McGee says:

      I don’t think I’d ever read the business details in the middle of the article about what a month’s advertising costs, nor about the size of their sales staff, etc. That stuff was pretty interesting to me. And yeah, totally agree about that one woman going WAYYYY over the top in contacting the reviewer.

  2. Will Scott says:

    The problem for me is not the rightfully negative review which requires good customer service to negotiate.

    It’s the rants and attacks which are the problem. I mean, sure, anybody with any sense reading for context can identify a wacko, but on brief review a “one-star, scarred for life” review can be devastating.

    I have a client right now who one of his reviews isn’t even a review, it’s an indictment of his Yelp ethics. The sum of the review is “this guy’s full of it and pays for reviews” (which, to the best of my knowledge, is wholly untrue).

    And, yelp won’t take down either even though this guy pays $675 / month.

    It’s tough. Like Google, Yelp has its own internal ethical standards which are non-democratic and potentially life-changing.

  3. Tom Crandall says:

    Matt, Dave, & Will,

    I believe social media in the form local business reviews has yet to really evolve.

    For review directories/sites, it will be essential to force more transparency among the community of reviewers–this could possibly mean verifying reviewer accounts by phone or address (similar to the Google LBC), making the process to provide reviews more cumbersome but more credible. This will eliminate much of the phony clutter. The directories/sites that feature the most credible reviews will likely become the most popular.

    For small business owners/local business marketers the key is to embrace reviews and not to take them personally. I strongly recommend engaging reviewers directly. As a guideline, here are some review scenarios and recommended responses to win the hearts and minds of your target audience:

    **The poor customer service review** If a customer has been forced to wait for an extended period of time or was treated to a display of attitude, it is important to acknowledge the issue and ask for permission to discuss the problem offline, seeking a resolution. If the review is fake, there will likely be no response, but prospective customers will observe your sincere attempt to resolve the issue.

    **The unsatisfactory product or service review** If a product or service does not meet expectations, acknowledge the disappointment, share your determination to provide some redemptive options, and ask for permission to discuss the problem offline, seeking a resolution.

    **The flawed/destructive product or service review** Let’s say you’re a well-known dry cleaning brand with a couple thousand locations. One of your locations gets nailed with a horrifying review describing how a priceless wedding dress was destroyed by a solvent in the cleaning process. This can be an extremely distressing experience for a new bride. Acknowledge the sensitive issue and ensuing anxiety and suffering with a sincere, empathetic apology. Ask the customer for permission to discuss the problem offline, seeking a resolution. Make every effort to exceed expectations offline.

    **The vile name calling and threats review** Do not engage these types of reviewers, the reviews speak for themselves in a self-defeating light. Take action to have these types of reviews deleted by the business directory hosting the review. If the review is submitted through a Google Maps business listing, click the “Flag as inappropriate” link found under the review, and submit a report. Google will likely remove the review upon review.

    **The brand champion review**
    If the review is a genuine 5-star rave why not publicly thank them for their kind words and engage them on their observations? Of course this is a judgment call, but if the review provides valuable insight it is logical to build upon the comments. Imagine turning a forum for customer reviews into a glowing, ongoing conversation that increases conversions.

    Here’s another thought—reward prospective customers for researching your reviews. One example is to publish an exclusive coupon code or offer within your review section, driving prospects to a specific web page, microsite, or offline transaction. This is also a great way to get a feel for how many customers are sizing up your reviews. The perspective here is that reviews are part of your virtual brand real estate, why not strategically use this social forum to better serve customers and increase revenue.

  4. Tom Royce says:

    One thing a small business can do is drive satisfied customers to write reviews on Yelp. Like a salesman asking for a referral, restaurants should be driving the happy customers to recommend them.

    There is also a disconnect, especially with restaurants. There typically are too many in most markets for all to survive. And many of the restaurants are not very good. As a former serial restaurant owner, I had a couple that I was not thrilled with and sold them quickly.

    But diners had very few ways to vet the good from the bad. This allowed many restaurants that should not survive to hang on while providing a sub par experience. Yelp is a game changer as it grows because the information on whether a restaurant is good or not will be disseminated quickly.

    For a good restaurant one snarky review is not going to hurt it. Odds are the reviewer will lose prestige in the community before the restaurant does.

    For a bad restaurant the reviews should help the owners improve the experience they offer or shut down and saving some of their savings.

    A win-win, even if it is a painful experience.

  5. Tom Crandall says:

    You’re right on about driving reviews Tom. Working with brands that have a local business model, I recommend a three-step solution to manage local reviews–monitor reviews, take action/respond to reviews, and proactively generate reviews.

    Evidence reveals that asking customers for reviews dramatically affects the number of positive and insightful reviews a business will receive. It is easy to “stack the deck” by offering something in exchange for the review—such as a discount, coupon, or exclusive offer. The quid pro quo nature of this transaction tends to generate a much higher return of favorable responses. This approach is particularly recommended for businesses that feature products or services that lack the emotional appeal of Apple, Starbucks, or Massage Envy.

  6. Aaron Roberts says:

    I own a mom and pop pizza place in Seattle. We have our share of good and bad reviews. Mostly good since we carry at 4.5 stars. We pay Yelp their money to respond to these reviewers, a meager $300/month. We had one recently. A young girl who felt like being snarky. Most of her reviews are 1 star. She slammed the trivia we were doing and then bashed us for having a hispanic bus boy who couldn’t understand her with a “WTF” comment and a 1 star. I was very angry. We responded in a fairly balanced way, except for her comments on our server. We said we felt it was borderline racist. Ever since then, the 1 and 2 star reviews have been stacking up from her friends. One review said a few random things like “great artwork” but then went right on to say they were grossed out because they found ants in our restaurant. Really ants? This is why decent restaurants all pay for exterminators, as do we. This is why decent restaurants require regular cleanings and tidiness.

    I feel this borderline slanderous and I’m contemplating contacting a lawyer.

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