I had been a big believer in Yelp and the review site model: treat your customers well and they will reward you. I have also had little time for the Yelp haters: “Stop complaining about Yelp and work on your business.”

Well that is what I used to think and then I saw the real, ugly side, of Yelp. Forbes, PBS, and the New York Times seem to agree.

As a rule, the larger the business, the more clients you have, and therefore the more chance that you are not going to be able to keep them all happy. That is not to say that you should not try, but there is always that reality.

In the veterinary world, there is a great product called Vsurv that allows for electronic surveys to be sent out to clients who visit your practice. It plugs straight into practice management software. The great thing out surveying every client for whom you have an email address, as Vsurv does, is that to gives you real data for client satisfaction. Data that you can track from month to month. Even with a 50% – 60% compliance rate you are still talking about hundreds of responses. If I have 30 online reviews 10 of which are filtered (more on that later) but I see 100 – 150 clients a day the online review numbers add up to the statistical error rate of direct surveying.

So a product like Vsurv is better than online review sites. Then what about Yelp?
Well the big problem with Yelp is its review filter. What’s Yelp’s review filter you ask? Well you wouldn’t be alone in not knowing much about it. Unless you run a Yelp page you probably don’t know about the filter, and many who do run pages don’t know about it until they get bitten by it.

Yelp’s review filter is supposed to protect the integrity of Yelps reviews by filtering out suspicious reviews: Overly positive reviews by users that have only one or a couple of business reviews or overly negative reviews by the same kind of user. A least that is the idea…

The problem is that the criteria that Yelp uses to filter it’s reviews is a closely guarded secret – supposedly to avoid businesses “gaming” the system. The filter is supposedly “automatic” and therefore is not influenced by petty concerns such as advertiser preference. However, individual users, and businesses have no recourse to un-filter filtered reviews.

To add to the problems, consistent reports exist of Yelp filtering only good reviews and leaving only bad reviews after the business concerned refuses to advertise with Yelp. I personally have seen a negative review get filtered and then miraculously become unfiltered – not sure how an automatic filter changes its mind but apparently it can.

You can even read the filtered reviews – and it is quite amazing how different a picture of most businesses you can gather by reading the filtered reviews. Yelp only allows access to filtered reviews via a Captcha – why? To make it more difficult to link to? It is quite an experience to see 15 filtered reviews 13 of which are positive that have basically the same user profile as the six recent negative reviews that have not been filtered.

Then, of course, are the online reputation management companies that promise to get bad online reviews removed from Google, Yelp, and other online review sites. All the major review sites say that the only way to remove reviews is with the same tools that everyone has access to – flagging in other words. There is, however, another way – the reviews themselves have been created by a reputation company which can work “miracles” by removing review that they themselves have posted. On a couple of occasions now, I have seen very odd reviews appear and then been approached by some of the more unscrupulous types of Online reputation managers who say that they can work “miracles.” This issue has been addressed by Yelp, but only in the broadest of sense.

The real issue with Yelp; however, is that is does not practice what it preaches. Concentrate on customer service and customers will give you great reviews. So what does is say when so many potential customers feel that the Yelp system is fundamentally flawed and refuses to engage them on the subject? Yelp encourages businesses to respond to negative reviews however provides no mechanism to challenge its filter. Yelps does provide a flagging system, but no feedback on why it does or does not agree with the business owner flagging the review in question. Yelp also refuses to engage with clients about the review side and will only engage about advertising.

I, for one, do not actually believe that Yelp is trying to extort business owners as some charge. I do, however, feel that the product and company is flawed.

The word from Yelp seems to be do what what say – not what we do.

I’m not a big believer in that.

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