Our Guide to Telling Yelp to Shove It
When I first started considering writing this article, way back in 2014, I'd had many clients who all complained about the same issue with Yelp: "My good reviews are hidden, all the bad ones are showing, and the salespeople at Yelp won't stop calling me promising they can help... for a fee."
I ended up deciding to write this article because I’ve received the exact same marketing calls from Yelp that my clients complained about. It’s been pretty from the beginning that something’s not quite right with the whole matter. And there’s plenty of evidence that shows Yelp isn’t playing nice, and the courts and federal law are on their side. So, what can you do?
Unfortunately, yelp can legally extort your business.
In September 2014, the 9th Circuit Court decided a case that practically could have been named Everybody v. Yelp Inc. The case involved a group of companies which believed that Yelp had "extorted or attempted to extort advertising payments from them by manipulating user reviews and penning negative reviews of their businesses." In their case, the plaintiffs argued that Yelp had done this by distorting their rankings - removing positive reviews and publishing negatives ones - and then having their sales people use that as leverage to get them to buy advertisements on the review site.
But the court stated in their ruling, "As Yelp has the right to charge for legitimate advertising services, the threat of economic harm that Yelp leveraged is, at most, hard bargaining."
This subject has been talked about ad nauseam (here's a good overview from shortly after the case was decided), so I won't go into too much detail here. Suffice to say, for the past several years, Yelp's position has been, "We don't extort our customers, but hey, we totally can if we feel like it." They say they don't extort businesses, but when even your own shareholders have sued you for "undisclosed business practices, including but not limited to requiring business customers to pay to suppress negative reviews," something ain't right.
Worse yet, Yelp doesn't have to take down negative reviews that aren't true.
We've worked with businesses that have struggled to clamp down on negative Yelp reviews from vindictive customers and disgruntled employees. Chances are you know how infuriatingly difficult Yelp can be about taking down reviews. They openly state that they don't "take sides in factual disputes" on reviews - Yelp's polite way of saying that they'll ignore the issue in most cases. They do say that if you have managed to obtain a "final adjudication from a court of competent jurisdiction," you can escalate matters to the support team, and potentially have a false review removed.
Except that the courts have undermined this option. In 2017, the California Supreme Court ruled that Yelp did not need to take down a defamatory, libelous (false!) review aimed at Dawn Hassel, an attorney based in San Francisco. The court stated that Yelp effectively cannot be ordered to take down offensive or libelous material. In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Hassel's appeal, instead upholding the California Supreme Court decision.
If you catch yourself thinking, "Well, I'll be the one who succeeds in suing Yelp," you need to take a step back and consider who you're fighting. That building up above? That's Yelp's headquarters in San Francisco, in the historic Pacific Gas & Telegraph Building at 140 Montgomery Street. When it was built in 1925, the 26-story building was San Francisco's tallest building. Yelp's headquarters take up 15 floors of an Art Deco monstrosity that looks like it was purpose-built by Tim Burton for a showdown between Batman and the Joker. This is a company that can flatten you with legal costs.
Circumstances may change, but until the day a court decides otherwise in a case filed by someone with a lot more money than you (or I), Yelp is protected by federal law and a pile of cash. They don't have to do anything about defamatory or false reviews.
You're stuck with Yelp. But here's what you can do.
The truth is, as much as I dislike the company's practices, even I use their site occasionally. There is some competition, primarily in the form of Google reviews and TripAdvisor. But, despite how much I loathe them, Yelp still provides the most consistent help and relevant advice when I'm searching for my next brunch adventure.
While I hope the competition catches up soon (and while my usage of Yelp has really decreased), there are still times where having a one-stop site where I can locate the nearest restaurants, find photos and menus, and get directions is just too convenient to ignore.
Lastly, as a business owner, my chosen profession requires monitoring the online reputation of my business and my clients' businesses - so I have to check Yelp frequently and make sure that any negative reviews are responded to in a timely manner. It's the nature of the beast. If you don't defend your reputation on Yelp, nobody else will. So, knowing that, here are some tips and tricks for dealing with Yelp, as well as additional info on Yelp's review filtering and removal processes.
Yelp Guide Index
Yelp's rationale for hiding reviews is probably B.S., but...
We've done some comparative analysis of reviews that Yelp shows, versus reviews that they bury in the graveyard of "not currently recommended" reviews. What we found was that there isn't anything obvious about individual reviews that favors them for being published or filtered out. (There may be factors that we can't detect, such as whether Yelp sees evidence that a review was submitted from a friend or employee of a business owner.)
But we did see that there were characteristics of reviewers that seemed to impact the visibility of their reviews:
Profile Image. When I surveyed five businesses in five different industries, overall 71% of visible reviews were left by reviewers with profile images (versus a generic blank icon), while only 45% of filtered reviews were from users with profile images. This is one of many things that hints at Yelp's desire to be seen as a social media platform, leading them to favor reviewers who use it as a social platform, complete with profile photo, filled out bio, and all the other bells and whistles.
Photos. Again, Yelp is biased towards users who go the extra mile. In our analysis, 94% of reviews that Yelp blocked were posted by users who had submitted 2 or fewer photos to Yelp. Yelp loves those Instagram fiends who post photos of everything they do.
Number of Reviews. It makes sense that Yelp wants active users. Active users stick around and provide eyeballs for ads, and they generate the content that people visit Yelp for. High-volume reviewers are Yelp's bread and butter. In our review, 95.5% of the reviews hidden by Yelp had been left by reviewers with five or fewer reviews under their belts.
Number of Friends. This metric is a little hit and miss, as we describe in our study. But on average, filtered reviews are left by users with no or very few Yelp friends, while visible reviews are written by social butterflies.
The takeaway from the above is that you have the best chance of making your reviews stick if you can cater to Yelp's crowd of power users who have an established track record. It appears that Yelp's desire to squeeze money out of business owners is outweighed by their desire to keep active users happy.
What are some stats for filtered vs. published reviews?
Published Reviews with Profile Photo0%
Filtered Reviews with Profile Photo0%
Filtered Reviews Written by Reviewers with 5 or Fewer Reviews0%
Filtered Reviews Written by Reviewers Sharing 2 or Fewer Photos0%
Tip #1: Claim your business listing to better control what potential customers will see.
First and foremost, every business has a listing on Yelp, one way or another. I have had more than one client come to me saying, "I've got a bunch of bad Yelp reviews, but I never even set up a page on Yelp! How do I get rid of it?" Unfortunately, you're stuck. Yelp allows reviewers to add businesses to the site. Even if you've never even created a Yelp account, you've probably already got some form of Yelp data associated with your business.
If you have negative reviews, or someone is spreading misinformation about you, you may be losing customers without you even realizing it. Some potential customers even get turned off if it's evident that you aren't active on Yelp and interacting with customers. Just like if you have a crummy website, or no website at all, they take it as a sign that you're not serious about your business.
So, claim your Yelp listing. It's free, and it's not too difficult. Do it, even if just looking at their website gives you a case of hives (it's for the sake of your business!). But bear in mind that you're not done once you've claimed it. Part of maintaining a good online reputation is filling out your profile with useful info. Fill out all the sections of your business profile - add your web web address, photos of your business, a response for the "about the owner" section, and any other info you can provide. Even if you have zero reviews, it still looks good to have a full profile and show that you care. And yes, this process is all free, so there's no reason not to do it.
How to Claim Your yelp Profile
1. Visit Yelp's "Claiming your Business" page and click on the red "Claim your Business" button.
2. Enter your street address and business name.
3. This will display a list of businesses that might be yours. If you see yours, click the "Claim" button next to it.
4. If your business is listed, but it says "Already Claimed," then either you've already done this, or somebody else already has. In this case, you'll unfortunately have to contact Yelp to get it unlocked for you.
5. After you click "Claim," or if your business isn't listed and you click the "Add Your Business" button at the bottom of the list, you'll have to set up an account, and then verify it through your email.
6. Once you've verified your account, you'll be able to verify that you own your business, typically by receiving a phone call on the business line and entering a code on Yelp's website.
7. Once you do this, you'll be done and have control over your business page!
Tip #2: Monitor and respond to your reviews on a consistent basis.
Keep a close eye on your reviews, and reply back to every review you get. Make a habit of checking in weekly (or daily if you're a restaurant owner, since those are the most commonly reviewed) and take a look at your reviews.
It's easy to miss, but remember that Yelp lists reviews in two places: The highlighted "Recommended Reviews" below your business info, and the hard-to-find "other reviews that are not currently recommended" in light-grey text under the recommended reviews (by the way, this is typically where your good reviews go to die when you're being strong-armed).
Monitoring your reviews will give you an idea of how you're being perceived, and also give you a chance to save face by responding properly to bad reviews. Don't complain about the customer or say anything negative. Apologize, address the issue, and vow to make it better. DO NOT be another Amy's Baking Company and destroy your reputation by attacking people for leaving negative reviews.
We also encourage clients to respond to positive reviews as well. Thank your customers, and if they describe specifics of their experience, give a specific response. When they say that your employee Jeff was awesome, tell them that, yeah, Jeff is a great employee, and that you'll be giving Jeff an 'attaboy.' These days, many customers choose who they do business with in part based upon how employees are treated. That upper-middle class customer who dropped a couple hundred bucks on a steak dinner at your restaurant may have once been a server or a dishwasher, and have a soft spot for waitstaff. Taking the opportunity to show you care for your employees can make a difference.
It's also great if you actually remember your appreciative customers, and can say something nice about how wonderful they were. However, don't use this as an opportunity to upsell or self-promote. Just show them that you care and it was a pleasure serving them, and leave it at that. If you seem like you're turning it into a sales opportunity, it'll put people off.
Tip #3: Don't contest reviews unless they are clearly false or offensive.
If you've been getting a slew of negative reviews on Yelp, it can be tempting to blame the reviewers. And because Yelp does offer the ability to contest reviews, it's tempting to contest all of them. But, that's not the best way to deal with bad reviews.
We obviously have a bone or two to pick with Yelp. But the reality is, more of than not, if you're consistently seeing negative reviews, something about your business isn't working for your customers. Take a step back and try to look at the reviews in an unbiased fashion. Is there a consistent trend? Are there several reviews that tell a similar story? If so, you've probably got a real-world problem that needs to be addressed. Trying to get negative reviews deleted won't actually fix the issues your business is facing. Bad word-of-mouth will catch up to you in the end, no matter how many bad reviews you bury.
But, let's say you get a bad review that's clearly fake. Yelp's policies for removing reviews definitely don't favor business owners, even for reviews that are full of lies. As we mentioned above, the courts have sided with Yelp when it comes to false and defamatory reviews. You can't rely on Yelp to take down every negative review, and don't bother hiring a lawyer, as Yelp doesn't have a legal responsibility to do anything about bad reviews.
When you look at Yelp's removal guidelines for defamatory reviews, you can see that they're pretty lackluster. The phrase "we don't typically take sides" doesn't inspire a heck of a lot of confidence.
But, we have occasionally been successful getting B.S. reviews taken down. If you do feel you're getting hit with negative review spam, or think that former or current employees may be behind them, it is worth it to try and contest the review. But going on the attack won't do you any good.
Always be calm and respectful, be detailed in your explanation of why the review is false, and make a point of mentioning elements of the review that Yelp may find problematic (offensive content, cursing, etc.). In the meantime, respond to those reviews in a way that shows you care and want to find a positive resolution. Also, be sure to check the sidebar for some tips and tricks on how to have the best chance of getting a review removed. As we note there, Yelp is much more likely to remove a review if it paints them in a bad light (versus painting your business in a bad light).
Tip #4: How to deal with Yelp's persistent salespeople without losing your sanity
We get called by Yelp all the time. ALL. THE. TIME. Worse, their pitches have become increasingly deceptive. Back in the day, they would typically take the approach of, "Do you like to eat at restaurants? How do you find restaurants? On Yelp right? Well, don't you want to capture the attention of people like you?"
But these days, Yelp is running scared. In November 9, 2018, Yelp's stock dropped 27% in one day when they disclosed that they hadn't netted any new advertising customers in three months. They have to keep their investors happy, so the pitch has changed. Nowadays, their marketers are much more vague, and imply that your business listing is somehow unfinished or substandard, and you need to throw cash at them to get your listing up to snuff. It's only when you start to dig and ask questions that they'll come out and say that what you're paying for is an ad.
Yelp has three forms of paid advertising, which haven't changed in many years: pay-per-click ads (which don't offer nearly the return on investment that Google, Facebook, or even Bing Ads do) which appear in the sidebar or on competitor's pages, "premium placement" of your business above others in your category (similar to how Google ads show above organic results), and "enhanced" business profiles which don't show competitors' ads and have a few extra bells and whistles.
Yelp's reps are extremely nice, extremely persistent, and will butter you up relentlessly. This is so that when they hit you with their ridiculous price quote, there's a chance you'll have been lulled into a sense of complacency. But have no doubt, it will be pricey - somewhere on the order of $500 to $1,000 per month.
I've run a lot of PPC campaigns, and I can tell you from experience that there are many, many more effective ways to spend thousands of dollars on advertising. We do a ton of campaigns on Google and Facebook, and have run ads on Bing and other sites as well. Not once have I ever recommended marketing on Yelp. We've experimented with Yelp, and the quality of the leads simply isn't there. They'll tout the number of ad impressions you get like it's the be all, end all, but when it comes to actual leads, they simply aren't able to adequately target useful demographics.
Okay, so you don't want to advertise on Yelp. But how the heck do you get rid of that super nice salesperson that calls you what seems like EVERY DAY? When you see that 415 area code phone number originating from San Francisco pop up on your phone, you know you're about to be on the phone for half an hour.
Unfortunately, the most effective way I have found is by being rude... in the nicest way possible. So, answer the phone, and once they announce they're from Yelp, cut them off and say one of the following things:
- "I'm sorry, you're wasting your time. I have absolutely no money in my bank account to advertise. Thank you, but please remove me from your list."
- "There is a zero-point-zero percent chance I will advertise with you. I've had this conversation with you many times. It's not happening, so please stop calling me."
- Use the smarmy, intellectual Frasier Crane approach: "At Cornell University, they have an incredible piece of scientific equipment, the scanning electron microscope. This microscope is so powerful that you can actually see atoms, the infinitesimally tiny building blocks of our universe. Sir/ma'am, if I were using that microscope right now, I still wouldn't be able to locate my interest in advertising with Yelp. Please stop calling me."
I've used all of these approaches successfully, and haven't heard back from those particular salespeople. Of course, inevitably a new salesperson will be assigned to your region and will call you up, and you'll have to hit them between the eyes with a fresh dose of "NO" to make them go away. That's the nature of the beast.
Also, Yelp's reps are trained to talk you into allowing them to have a teleconference or screen share meeting with you. If they get you on the hook, you'll be stuck for an hour hearing the same pitch over and over again. Don't EVER agree to sit down with them for that presentation. Be strong. Tell them to go away.
Now while you may have been on the receiving end of many sales calls, remember to be nice and civil. These are salespeople, not the decision-makers at Yelp. They've got a quota to meet, and they hear over and over again how terrible their company is. They're still human beings. Don't add to their stress. They probably already know how much their employer sucks, but they need to keep a roof over their head.
Follow our strategies and stop worrying about being strong-armed by yelp.
Until Yelp gets crushed by the next hot thing - just like when Facebook sent MySpace to the digital graveyard - we're stuck with them. But in the meantime, we can do as much as possible to make sure that Yelp isn't in the position to extort you. Claim your profile, respond to reviews, carefully choose which reviews to fight back against, and get their salespeople off your back. If you can manage this, Yelp will go from being a source of constant stress in your business life, to just another side-thought that you have to check up on every now and then.
How we've gotten fake Yelp reviews removed.
Yes, it's a giant pain to try and get fake Yelp reviews removed from the site, and more often than not they will let you twist in the wind. But we have had some success in overcoming Yelp's obstinacy by following these guidelines:
Find evidence the reviewer is fake or biased. Our first goal is to undermine the reviewer's legitimacy if there's evidence they aren't on the up and up. Is the account only a couple days old? Do they have little to no activity on the site other than your bad review? Have they posted a bunch of 1-star reviews for businesses like yours (suggesting they may be in your line of business and trying to sabotage the competition)? In the last couple years, many sites that feature reviews (such as Amazon and TripAdvisor) have become extremely cautious when it comes to fake reviews used to boost (or undermine) a business or product. If you can show that a user account is likely fraudulent, that's a good start.
Does their review contain private information? Yelp is becoming increasingly sensitive to their site being used as a means of harassment. In their content guidelines, Yelp states that reviews should not include full names. If a defamatory review calls out an employee by their full name, you have some leverage to have the review removed.
Darn it, Yelp is a family-friendly site! Yelp realllllly wants to be as bland and neutral as possible. While Yelp states that "colorful language and imagery is fine," in practice we've seen that they're not terribly enthusiastic about reviews containing curse words. If someone uses words that would earn their review a PG-13 or R rating, you may be successful in flagging it for inappropriate content. Yelp's guidelines also indicate that "threats, harassment, lewdness, hate speech, and other displays of bigotry" are grounds for removal. Use your harasser's lack of judgment and self-control against them!
In general, taking some time to study Yelp's guidelines is a good way to get some ideas for arguing for the removal of a blog. Yelp usually doesn't care whether a review is fake or not. But, pointing out that a review may ruffle feathers because it has a naughty word, is harassment, or includes opinions of an inflammatory nature is much more likely to get Yelp to bring the hammer down.