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The agony and the ecstasy: On reviews and Yelp-sploitation

Updated: May 27, 2021

A belated Happy Halloween and Happy Diwali to all! It's been a busy last couple of weeks but Lassi & Spice has loved being part of so many celebrations. Now that November is here, I thought I'd get back to blogging and tackle a doozy of a topic: online reviews. As a small business with a unique concept, I'm no stranger to hearing directly from customers on a daily basis, both the raves and gentle suggestions for what we can do better. It's nearly always helpful. Online reviews are a bit of a different story, however, and a hot topic these days, at least among the small business owners I know. In fact, if you need a holiday conversation-starter, ask the business owner in the room about how he or she feels about Yelp. Make sure you have a fresh beverage in hand. Prepare to comfort that person as they experience all the feels.

But I should rewind a bit. Before opening my doors at the beginning of the year, I happily set up my business listing on every site I could. I made myself Google-official, Trip Advisor-official, and really any official I could find. It was exciting to see my business listing go live on these sites! Yelp was a bit different: being extremely customer driven (more on that later), they don't allow the business owner to do anything until a first review is received. No problem, I thought. I waited until doors were open, a couple of reviews were posted, and then I "claimed" my business of Yelp. Boom! Yelp official.

Claiming your business on Yelp initiates a torrent of calls from the the Yelp sales team. These calls started for me within days of opening our doors and continued for several months after, with the phone sometimes ringing multiple times a day. Why all the enthusiasm from the Yelp sales team you ask? Well, if you're familiar with Yelp, you'll know that it's free for you, the consumer, to use. Yelp's revenue model revolves around the ads that businesses buy to show up as a sponsored result in your search, or as a sidebar suggestion with a favorable review quoted. How much do these ads run? I'm honestly not sure. I sat through about 20 minutes of a salesperson's pitch and decided it was not for me. As a consumer, I find the ads extremely annoying. Over the years I've trained myself to scroll right by them.

Yelp is supposed to be a completely unbiased review site. Yet some businesses pay Yelp lots of money to advertise and some do not. Hmmm. Do you see where this might be going? Does declining to pay to advertise on Yelp hurt your business ratings? Well, here's my experience: I've never given Yelp a dime and regularly decline their sales calls. At the same time, our star rating gradually declines each month despite the fact that we've greatly improved our speed-of-service, our staff training, our menu selection, our recipes,....everything really. We're a new business after all, so we're constantly making improvements. Please know I don't disregard any credible or fair reviews, even if they're negative. I relentlessly look for ways to make everyone's experience better, taking the vast majority of feedback to heart. My complaint is around fairness. For example, Yelp arbitrarily hides good reviews it deems to be "not recommended", while pulling negative ones up to the top of their default "Yelp Sort" page view. They scatter ads for other businesses throughout my page. But most frustratingly, Yelp has proven itself to be the preferred platform for those with an irrational need to rant. There's no doubt in my mind that throwing some ad money their way would improve my situation.

So am I actually being extorted by an SF-based tech company with a friendly font and a silly sounding name? I'll answer the first question with a 'maybe.' And I'm not alone. So many small business owners have complained about Yelp's suspicious and biased treatment that Yelp actually has a full page on their site attempting to debunk claims of small business extortion. The rampant complaints have fueled media investigations, a documentary called Billion Dollar Bully, extensive lawsuits and an entertaining Daily Show feature that ran earlier this month.

So what to do? Here are the options as far as I can see:

1) Take my kickball and go home (i.e. remove my listing from their site). I mean, if I don't like it and don't think it's good for business, I don't have to participate, right? Well sorry, not so fast. Yelp actually does not allow businesses to remove their listing. Yes, believe it or not businesses are actually forced to participate in the Yelp platform as along as at least 1 individual has given a review.

2) Give up and pay for ads: Perhaps this is the path of least resistance, and it's chosen by many. But so far I'm holding the line. I refuse to deal with dark forces.

3) Educate consumers about what's really going on. Ding-Ding-Ding! You get a gold star if you guessed this one. And you're a critical player here, dear reader. I hope, in fact, that you now consider yourself somewhat more educated about what Yelp is all about. If you now feel differently about using this platform, here are a few actions that could help level the playing field for small businesses, even if just a little:

- Boycott Yelp: Delete the app and find your next brunch destination elsewhere. Yelp's practices are highly questionable, and they are nearly universally hated by small businesses. Don't give them eyeballs for their ads. Instead, go to Google. Yes, the search giant may have its flaws, but Google ratings are a much better option if you want to choose a business based on a meaningful survey of customer experiences. Google solicits reviews from a broader segment of customers (case in point I have nearly 3 times the Google reviews as Yelp). But most importantly. I've never been shaken down to buy a Google ad or even remotely felt like there was a connection between ratings and ad dollars.

- If you must use Yelp, spread your share of good reviews as well as bad. If you're like me, pre business owner me at least, it only occurs to you to post a review when you've got a score to settle. But not when your favorite neighborhood spot delivers an awesome experience yet again. Instead, go out of your way to share some gratitude, praise and positivity during this season of thankfulness. It will help balance out the crazies and the algorithms and the powerful ad hustlers. Believe me, it really does matter.

Until next time.



Lassi & Spice (3.5 Stars on Yelp)

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