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Does Yelp Advertising Suck? The Modern Day Digital Mafia

Oct 21 • Advertising, Social Media, Technology, Water Cooler, Website • 12708 Views • No Comments on Does Yelp Advertising Suck? The Modern Day Digital Mafia • By Alexandra Myers

User-Generated Review Website Doesn’t Help Small Businesses


I don’t know about you, but, to me, going to the same restaurant over and over gets old after a while. A few weekends ago, I was ready to try something other than the same old, same old. I had only one requirement: I wanted it to be quaint and private. My dinner partner and I thought of a place, but we wanted to check it out online first. The restaurant’s website itself wasn’t very helpful, so we turned to something else: Yelp.

For the most part, the reviews were pretty good. It let us know they served homemade Italian food and that it had the quiet atmosphere I was looking for. Some said the service was so-so, others said they’ve been going there for years and loved it. But when I saw that it met the one requirement I had, I was sold. The moral of this story? That the reviews people posted on Yelp about the food, service, etc. really didn’t affect my decision all that much. In fact, chances are I probably would have given it a shot anyway. But perhaps I am a rare case.

There are people out there who utilize the user-generated review website as a make or break for their evening out. In an article on the Huffington Post, Chicago native Shannon Miller said she uses the site all the time and thinks it provides a needed service.

“I personally love it,” she said. “Chicago is such a huge, wonderful city, but it’s hard to know off the top of your head where to go if you want to try something new. It gives me options outside of endless Internet trolling and sometimes it’s nice to hear other opinions.”


Yelp Advertising – Real People, Real Reviews?

And, yes, “real people, real reviews” on the outset seems like an honest way to judge a business. But how honest is it, really?

There are many people out there who will only write reviews when they have a bad experience with something. They don’t want to take the time praising a place unless it, very literally, went above and beyond. But, give them one bad experience and they’ll be the first to write a negative review.

In addition to that, are you familiar with the saying, “One bad thing outweighs all the good things?” Well, that plays a really big role here. One place can’t please everybody – Someone isn’t going to like the food; a family might come on a busy night and the service is slower than normal; All the size pants you want are out of stock. It’s an unfortunate turn of events that could unfold, but writing one bad review in a sea full of good ones is more than likely going to impact that company negatively. Despite all the good, the bad is what people remember.

In that same Huffington Post article, Mike Maloney, the manager of a Chicago pub, said he doesn’t think the people who write Yelp reviews realize how much harm they can do.

“Businesses can be destroyed [by someone’s review],” Maloney said. “You really try to please every single person. Obviously you’re going to get one or two people [who are unhappy with something]. It’s kind of unfair.”

The owner of a Chicago bakery, Michelle Garcia, mirrors Maloney’s sentiments. She said, “People take themselves very seriously when they have a computer and fingers that work.”


Dealing with Negative Yelp Reviews … A Real Lie

But then comes the question that has been surfacing as of late: Are all Yelp reviews truly written by consumers?

For the past few years, Yelp’s advertising practices have been questioned by business owners. John, an East Bay restaurant owner, shared his story in 2009 with the East Bay Express:

John would receive regular phone calls from a Yelp sales representative. That sales rep, Mike, would explain to him that even though he has plenty of site visits and great responses, the negative reviews at the top of the page could really hurt him. And, fortunately for John, Mike could make those disappear. Oh, but wait: It’s going to cost him $299 a month.

Something seemed shady about that, John thought, because each time he got a call the negative reviews just so happened to be at the top of the page.

“You don’t know if [the bad reviews] happen to be at the top legitimately or if the rep moved them to the top,” he said. “You don’t even know if this is someone who legitimately doesn’t like your restaurant. Almost all the time when they call you, the bad ones will be at the top.”

John would politely decline to advertise with them, but the weekly calls did not stop. Eventually, he stopped answering the phone at all.

While it may seem like an exaggeration, John is not alone in his story. East Bay Express reported that six people told them Yelp sales representatives promised to move or get rid of negative reviews if their business would advertise. Another six people said that positive reviews just disappeared – or negative ones appeared – after owners declined to advertise.

“Because they were often asked to advertise soon after receiving negative reviews, many of these business owners believe Yelp employees use such reviews as sales leads,” the newspaper reports.

And they don’t just use the negative reviews as sales leads, but they actually write the reviews as well. East Bay Express discovered that Yelp does, in fact, pay employees to write reviews of businesses that are solicited for advertising. They even note one particular instance where a business owner who refused to advertise later received a negative review from a Yelp employee.


Yelp Believes They Do Help Business Owners

Of course, Yelp denies that claim. In an email to the Huffington Post, Yelp spokeswoman Kristen Whisenand said, “There has never been any amount of money you can pay Yelp to manipulate reviews.”

The only “manipulation” they use is an “automated review filter” that is supposed to protect users from malicious reviews.

Whisenand said about the filter, “[It’s] not a perfect system — after all, legitimate reviews sometimes look questionable, and questionable reviews sometimes look legitimate — but we think it does a pretty good job.”


Why Does Yelp Suck?

Other people, however, don’t think it’s doing so great of a job. On, a business owner posted on October 15 that there was once “17 genuine positive reviews with a 5 star rating.” And, “Yelp ‘filtered’ these reviews believing them to be untrue and fake. Now, the only review visible on their website is a negative one.”

Many users who have posted on this website want their businesses off Yelp, believing the site does more harm than good.

And now Yelp is struggling to look for defense mechanisms to battle these claims.

Earlier this year, San Diego lawyer Julian McMillan sued Yelp for failing to fully deliver on ads he bought from the company. The judge ruled in McMillan’s favor, saying Yelp’s advertising practices were like, “the modern-day version of the mafia going to stores and saying, ‘you want to not be bothered?'”

In response to this $2700 victory for McMillan, Yelp sued him, claiming that he planted fake reviews of his own law firm and paid his employees to write a review for his company.

Sound familiar?


So, Does Yelp Suck? We Say Yes

To be fair, the idea surrounding Yelp is a good one – help consumers around the country decide on a place that’s best suited for them. But as soon as advertising and money get involved, that whole idea becomes corrupted.

If I had to choose, I would say that advertising with Yelp is exactly the same as not advertising with them.

McMillan paid them $540 a month to ensure a specific number of visits to his site a day and did not receive what he paid for. When he tried to do something about it, he just got sued in return. Now, there no reviews on his page. But there are 17 filtered ones – All but two are five stars. People aren’t seeing these, and chances are it’s because of the legal action he took.

By not advertising, your Yelp page would probably look the same as McMillan’s does. You may have one or two positive reviews in there, but the majority will most likely be negative.

So, in the end, having your business on Yelp – and more importantly, paying for advertising from Yelp – really does nothing to boost your business. In fact, it will probably hurt more than it helps.


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Alexandra Myers

SEO Content Writer at Service Inbound
Westfield State University graduate; passionate journalist, friend, daughter, and sister; SEO Content Writer; avid Red Sox fan. Continuously learning new things every day.

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