yelp logoThe online review giant could be your company’s secret weapon―or its Achilles’ heel

With all the money a business spends on is public image―website, billboards, radio and TV ads, storefronts―many business owners are shocked to discover that often, the first impression for tens of millions of customers is not one that they control.  Yelp.com, a rating website that allows customers to sign on and review local businesses they have visited, could hold the power of promotion or collapse for small companies.  In a recent survey by Merchant Warehouse, it was shown that 72% of customers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations.  90% of Yelp users say positive reviews will affect their buying choices.

This is great news for consumers.  Everybody has had that experience of paying way too much for a careless auto repair or a rude chiropractor…who wouldn’t want to have some leverage for enforcing higher standards?

But for business owners, the issue is slightly more complicated.  Businesses that provide high-quality goods and services should only benefit from a site like Yelp.com.  Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.  Yelp has no way to differentiate between reviews that come from your legitimate, satisfied customers, and reviews that come from:

  • Your competitor’s shop around the corner
  • Your vindictive ex-girlfriend
  • The inebriated man who thought the fireplace was a bathroom stall
  • A scheming con artist hoping you’ll give him a sympathy discount

Needless to say, if you put too much stock in good Yelp reviews, a few bad eggs can bring your castle walls crashing down.  Of course, as the business owner with an account on the website, you can always respond to any reviews, positive or negative.  But how are you going to respond to a review that says, “I threatened the owner with a negative Yelp review but he just smirked and said he would respond to my review and deny everything.”

You see the problem?

The problem is that a site like Yelp leaves business owners totally exposed.  Many have claimed that Yelp’s advertising accounts department is well aware of this power and uses it underhandedly to sell ads on their site.  Charging business owners money to hide bad reviews, moving low ratings to the top of the page to extort ad purchases, and writing fake reviews―if these allegations are true, then Yelp is clearly behaving unethically.  But would such actions be illegal?

Last year, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco unanimously ruled that Yelp is under no obligation to protect business owners from bad ratings, and are not prevented from deleting good ratings or writing bad ratings themselves.  The bench’s logic argued that contrary to the claims of small businesses owners filing the lawsuit, Yelp can publish whatever they wish on their own website.  Even threatening companies with bad reviews to sell advertising the court described as “hard bargaining” instead of extortion.

Yelp continues to deny allegations that this is company policy.  As their litigation director, Aaron Schur, has stated: “Yelp has never done this, and individuals making such claims are either misinformed or, more typically, have an ax to grind.”

And so the actual truth about Yelp remains a question mark.  But the potential?  Well, that’s abundantly clear.  To stay on top of your online reputation and use review sites like Yelp to their full potential, just follow these 5 basic principles:

1) Take full advantage of free business promotion tools.  The best way to hurt your company’s online image is to have a Yelp profile that is missing important contact information, lacks photographs, or looks unkempt.  Remember, studies have shown that Yelp operates like a virtual storefront―having a clean and attractive “welcome mat” is a key way to draw clientele.  Other tools, like apps and analytics, can similarly expand your electronic interface.

2) Communicate clearly and regularly with your Yelp constituency.  Getting a bad review on Yelp isn’t the end of the world.  You should never respond in anger or frustration.  Simply address the customer’s concerns patiently and openly, and be willing to go the extra mile.  Remember the internet is watching; how you respond to one customer will be visible to countless others.  And communicate in other ways too!  Yelp has a “Yelp Deals and Gift Certificates” feature that enables you to offer discount vouchers similar to Groupon.

3) Defend your company’s reputation with a supportive social media network.  Fact: Yelp reviewers are less likely to list a public negative review for a company with an active social network and thousands of followers.  Their impulse will be to assume that “X people can’t be wrong” and figure they must have caught you on a bad day.  Besides, harvesting likes and followers on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook can only benefit you in the long run.

4) Use Yelp regularly as a customer of other businesses. This strategy is less intuitive, but hear me out.  You can’t know how your own public face looks to customers until you’ve been a customer and seen how other businesses look on Yelp.  This won’t cost you any additional time.  Just create a Yelp account for yourself, and start using it to decide which restaurant or clothing store you’ll choose next time you’re out.  Soon you’ll develop a feel for the site, and your own presentation techniques will improve.

5) Take Yelp reviews seriously, but not too seriously.  Remember that your Yelp image is about the big picture.  With all the positive and negative reviews floating around in Yelp’s zero-accountability zone, a negative review here or there isn’t going to ruin you, just like a positive review isn’t going to make you a millionaire.  Just remember the tips above and damage control will become like second nature!

If online advertising and reputation management isn’t your forte, the above advice should serve to get you going.  Now that you understand what Yelp is, how it operates, and how you should approach it as a customer and small business owner, you’re ready to get started.

If you would like a free demonstration of how Local View can assist you with Yelp Reviews and your entire social media reputation click here for a FREE DEMONSTRATION

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