Yelp Business Reviews (Dangers You Need to Know About)

Yelp business reviews have the power to destroy your local business. Learn Yelp’s biggest dangers, how to avoid them, and how to succeed despite Yelp.

Studies have shown that the average star rating on Yelp can directly increase sales for many local businesses. So Yelp business reviews can be the key to your local business succeeding.

Other studies have also shown that bad Yelp business reviews can be worse than no business reviews at all, showing that only 10% of consumers are willing to use a business with less than 3 stars.

Long story short: You put your business at risk if you ignore your Yelp business reviews.

Unfortunately, many small businesses will tell you that Yelp is not your friend, and there are many dangers that Yelp business reviews pose.

This article highlights the most important dangers you absolutely must know about to avoid Yelp reviews hurting your business.

This article also gives you options and recommendations for successfully navigating these dangers.

Finally, this article gives you suggestions for how to get control over your Yelp business reviews before they get control over your business.

Here are the specific topics covered in this article:

Many business owners hate Yelp with a burning passion

But why do businesses hate Yelp so much?

In a word, “Bullying.”

We hear a lot of complaints about Yelp from local business owners… a LOT of complaints.

There is quite a lot of controversy about whether Yelp is right or wrong, or if business owners are just taking out their frustration on Yelp for getting bad reviews.

While some businesses deserve the bad reviews they’ve gotten, we tend to favor and believe the claims of local business owners over Yelp.

The reason we tend to believe business owners over Yelp is simple: We don’t see the same level of foaming-at-the-mouth, passionate, burning hatred for any of the other major review platforms that we see for Yelp.

The same business owners who rage about Yelp don’t feel the same hatred for Google, Facebook, TripAdvisor, Zillow, and on and on….

So clearly Yelp is doing something different from the other platforms… something very unfriendly to local businesses.

Yelp is accused of holding positive reviews hostage to sell more advertising

Thousands of businesses have complained about Yelp, leading to an investigation by the Federal Trade Commision (FTC).

The FTC investigated Yelp for allegedly manipulating Yelp business reviews in an extortionist scheme to sell advertising to local businesses.

Many local business owners claim that Yelp filters out positive reviews until the business pays for advertising to get the positive reviews unfiltered.

The filter in question is Yelp’s “not recommended” section of each Yelp business profile page.

The average star rating for a business on Yelp is only calculated from reviews that don’t get filtered. So, when positive reviews get filtered, the average star rating goes down, hurting sales. And when positive reviews get unfiltered, the average star rating goes up, helping sales.

The FTC investigation closed without taking action. Yelp’s PR team declared victory and claimed that Yelp was innocent of any wrongdoing.

But interestingly, the FTC never announced their findings either way, leaving Yelp as the sole source of information about the outcome of the investigation.

Then Yelp faced a class action lawsuit (Levitt v. Yelp) which accused Yelp of extortionary sales tactics in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Yelp won the lawsuit, again declaring victory and claiming innocence of any wrongdoing.

But the judge did not declare Yelp innocent of using extortionist sales tactics. He also didn’t declare yelp guilty either.

The judge simply said that it’s perfectly legal for Yelp to manipulate reviews as a tactic to sell more advertising. Therefore, the judge dismissed the case on the basis that the plaintiffs had nothing illegal to complain about.

Specifically, the court issued the opinion that the tactic of manipulating reviews to sell advertising is merely an example of “hard bargaining” (which is legal) instead of “extortion” (which is illegal).

So neither the FTC nor the Ninth Circuit Court actually determined that Yelp is innocent of manipulating reviews to sell more advertising.

Perhaps some future unbiased 3rd party investigation might shed some light on this issue once and for all.

In the meantime, our advice to local businesses is this: Avoid all interactions with Yelp sales reps.

If a Yelp sales rep does have the ability to manipulate reviews, the last thing you want to do is give the sales person any reason to consider you a qualified sales prospect.

The quicker the sales person moves on to some other prospect, the better.

Yelp filters out many legitimate positive reviews

Whether or not Yelp uses its filter to bully business owners into paying for advertising, there’s no doubt that Yelp’s filter removes a lot of perfectly legitimate reviews from authentically happy customers who don’t violate any of Yelp’s policies.

Yelp claims that it filters out 21% of all reviews, leaving 72% unfiltered and removing another 7% altogether.

So unless you believe that over 1 in 5 reviews is fake, you have to conclude that Yelp is filtering out a lot of perfectly legitimate reviews from authentic customers.

Many local business owners also complain that Yelp’s filtering algorithm unfairly targets positive reviews more than negative reviews.

The numbers seem to say those business owners are right.

A study by Quantified Communications showed that Yelp filters positive reviews 33.8% more than negative reviews.

Whether Yelp does this intentionally or unintentionally, the results are the same: Yelp’s filter hurts local businesses more than it helps them by filtering out legitimate positive reviews significantly more often than negative reviews.

So how can you combat Yelp’s biased filter?

First, check out our article on how to remove a Yelp review that violates Yelp’s policies. This will at least help you combat negative reviews that don’t get filtered (but probably should).

But ultimately you’ll find that Yelp won’t remove most negative reviews, even if they’re factually false.

So the ultimate answer is a combination of volume and pre-screening.

Keep getting a high volume of Yelp business reviews. Expect a large percentage of those reviews to get filtered out. But the more reviews you get, the more will actually make it past Yelp’s filter, too. Treat Yelp like the numbers game that it is.

But don’t shoot yourself in the foot by ratcheting up the volume of reviews without first having a way to pre-screen for positive reviews. More on this in the “How to get control of your Yelp business reviews” section below.

Otherwise, without pre-screening, you’ll get negative reviews as well as positive reviews… and we already know that Yelp will filter out more of the positive reviews than the negative ones. So ratcheting up the volume without pre-screening may hurt more than it helps by leading to a lower star rating.

Yelp forces businesses to have a profile against their will

Want to opt out of Yelp altogether? Sorry. Yelp forces you to have a business listing whether you like it or not.

You may choose to “claim” your business or not. But even if you don’t claim it, the listing will still be public, Yelpers will continue to review your business, and your prospects will continue to find those reviews on Yelp.

Since opting out is not an option, we recommend that business owners claim their Yelp listing and take steps to get control over their business reviews. More on this in the section below on “How to get control of your Yelp business reviews.”

Yelp forbids you from asking for reviews

Yes, you heard that right. Yelp requires you to waive your First Amendment right to free speech or else you’re in violation of their policies.

Specifically, Yelp’s “Don’t Ask” policy forbids you or any of your employees from asking customers directly for a review.

Instead, Yelp does allow you to encourage reviews indirectly. For example, they suggest displaying the Yelp sticker in your window. (Pay no attention to Yelp’s own shameless self promotion with this suggestion while they lecture you about promoting your own business with your own customers.)

Let’s put this into perspective.

Let’s assume we could travel back 2,000 years in a time machine to ancient Rome. Let’s say we just finished eating at an ancient Roman restaurant. It’s very likely that restaurant owners in ancient Rome often told their happy customers to “tell all your friends about us.” It’s just common sense for any business to do this.

So what Yelp is asking you to do is forget about common business sense that has been around for literally thousands of years… and actively avoid asking your happy customers to tell the world about your business.

Keep in mind that you don’t even use Yelp’s platform to ask your customers for reviews. Yelp plays no part in your relationship with your own customers. Yet they want to dictate what you can and can’t say to your customers.

Adding injury to insult, the “Don’t Ask” policy isn’t just unreasonable. It also causes a business to get a lower star rating.

A study by Northwestern University showed that the policy causes a bias in favor of negative reviews.

That’s because unhappy customers are more likely to give an unsolicited review than happy customers, so unhappy customers are overrepresented on Yelp because of the “Don’t Ask” policy.

The study recommended businesses ask for reviews rather than relying solely on unsolicited reviews. A business that asks for reviews equally from all customers will improve the accuracy of the overall Yelp star rating, correcting for the negative bias inherent in unsolicited reviews.

It’s no wonder that most marketers for local businesses ignore Yelp’s “Don’t Ask” policy. It’s bad for both businesses and consumers, and completely unreasonable.

Our recommendation to our members is this: Decide how much risk you want to take on with Yelp, then act accordingly. For details, check out the section below on “How to get control of your Yelp business reviews” which covers 2 scenarios: Complete compliance with Yelp’s policies vs getting the best results at the expense of non-compliance with Yelp’s policies.

Yelp is not friendly to consumers either

When Yelp bullies businesses, they often claims to do so with the moral authority of helping consumers.

However, Yelp is almost as unfriendly to consumers as they are to local businesses.

When Yelp filters out a review as “not recommended” (as they do in 1 out of every 5 cases) that’s not exactly “friendly” to the consumer who spent time and effort to write the review.

It’s also not exactly consumer friendly when Yelp only shows businesses above the fold in search results if the businesses pay for advertising, rather than showing consumers even just 1 business that actually gets the best reviews.

Yelp also fails consumers in the accuracy of its star ratings.

That’s because Yelp’s “Don’t Ask” policy is as bad for consumers as it is for businesses.

Unsolicited reviews skew Yelp’s star ratings in favor of negative reviews over positive reviews, as the Northwestern University study found.

And that’s on top of the bias that Yelp’s filter has for keeping negative reviews unfiltered more than positive reviews.

As if that didn’t cause enough inaccuracy, Yelp’s “Don’t Ask” also policy means that Yelp star ratings have an enormously high margin of error, since the policy prevents businesses from getting enough reviews to reduce the margin of error.

With such a high margin of error on Yelp star ratings and several strong biases favoring negative reviews, Yelp ratings regularly mislead consumers into making poor buying decisions.

So Yelp’s policies hurt both consumers and businesses alike. But they probably help Yelp’s advertising sales by creating a pain point that businesses feel acutely and can only try to solve by buying Yelp ads.

It’s illegal to buy Yelp business reviews

Don’t buy Yelp business reviews. It’s not just against Yelp’s policies. It’s literally illegal to buy Yelp reviews.

If you buy Yelp business reviews, you may be subject to tens of thousands of dollars in fines from the FTC for violating their rules against “undisclosed paid endorsements.”

Also be warned that it’s illegal to offer customers any kind of incentive to write a review. The FTC considers any kind of compensation (not just money) in exchange for a public review to be an “undisclosed paid endorsement.”

One exception: You can offer customers a reward after they write a review. But be careful not to give the customer the expectation of a reward before they write the review, or else you will run afoul of the FTC’s regulations.

These rules apply to all public reviews on all review websites, not just Yelp business reviews.

How to get control of your Yelp business reviews

We’ve covered all the critical dangers you need to know about Yelp business reviews. Now let’s talk about how to navigate these treacherous waters and get control over your Yelp reviews.

As covered in the section above on “Yelp forbids you from asking for reviews,” you may want to comply completely with Yelp’s policies… or you may want to go off-road a bit if Yelp’s policies are both unreasonable and harmful to your business.

In this section, we’ll cover 2 example scenarios.

The first scenario gives you recommendations for how to comply with Yelp’s policies while still doing as much as possible to minimize the damage of those policies to your business.

The second scenario gives you recommendations for how to get the best possible Yelp star rating and lots of Yelp reviews… but at the expense of violating Yelp’s policies.

If your business already has a high star rating and lots of Yelp business reviews, you may want to take the safe route and comply with Yelp’s policies completely.

However, if your business has a lower star rating than you think it deserves, or you have too few Yelp business reviews, then you might want to violate Yelp’s policies, knowing that the policies are unreasonable and actively hurting your business.

Ultimately the choice is yours. We don’t make a single recommendation on this issue, since it’s a risk-to-reward judgment call that you alone can make.

For the record, the Rising Star Reviews web application is capable of handling any scenario you prefer.

If you want to comply 100% with Yelp’s policies, we’re happy to help you do that, and our web application has all the features necessary to comply.

If you want to maximize your star rating and the number of Yelp business reviews you get, our web application can help you with that, too.

If you’re still concerned or confused about Yelp’s policies, please feel free to contact us. We’ll be happy to offer any help or information we can.

How to comply with Yelp’s policies (and minimize the damage)

If you want to comply completely with Yelp’s policies, here’s how you can do that while minimizing the damage to your business….

First, take Yelp’s advice and put Yelp’s sticker in your window and their badge on your website.

Every week (or better yet, every day) send an email or text message to your customers asking them how they would rate your business on a 5-star scale.

Don’t mention Yelp at all. Just ask for private feedback.

But do include a link that says “Find us on Yelp.” Don’t use words like “Review us on Yelp” or “Write a review” or any other wording that directly asks for a review. Instead, use the indirect language of “Find us on Yelp,” which Yelp has deemed to be acceptable.

Make sure your Yelp link takes the customer to your main business profile page on Yelp. Don’t give the customer a link that goes directly to Yelp’s “Write a review” page, since Yelp could interpret this as a violation of their policies.

Whenever a customer replies, send a “thank you” message thanking them for their feedback.

Make sure the “thank you” message again includes the link to “Find us on Yelp.”

Make sure you send the same “thank you” email to all customers, regardless of what kind of 5-star rating they gave you in their feedback. If you send the email or the Yelp link only to some customers and not others, Yelp may consider that a violation of their policy concerning “surveys that ask for reviews from customers reporting positive experiences.”

This approach should keep you in compliance with Yelp’s policies.

It will also get you more Yelp business reviews than just putting a sticker in your window.

And it will remove some of the bias for negative reviews that a strict non-solicitation policy would have.

However, this approach also has the following downsides when compared with the approach we’ll cover in the next section, “How to get the best review profile.”

  • Your conversion rates will be lower, so you’ll get fewer Yelp business reviews (which makes your overall average star rating less accurate, due to a higher margin of error)
  • Your average Yelp star rating will be biased in favor of negative reviews (partly because of bias in Yelp’s filter and partly because of the non-solicitation bias still caused by not asking directly for Yelp reviews)

How to get the best Yelp business review profile

If you want to optimize your Yelp business reviews for maximum advantage without any regard at all for Yelp’s policies, here’s how you would do that….

First, remove the Yelp sticker from your window and take the Yelp badge off your website. These only serve to attract unsolicited reviews, which tend to be biased in favor of negative reviews.

Every week or every day, send an email or text message to ask your customers how they would rate your business on a 5-star scale.

Do not include a link to Yelp in this initial email. The purpose of this email is to pre-screen customers before asking for a review.

Whenever a customer responds with a rating that’s lower than your average star rating on Yelp, don’t ask for a review. Instead, thank them for their honest feedback and ask them how you might earn a 5-star rating from them in the future. They may give you invaluable feedback that could help you improve your business and earn lots of 5-star reviews in the future.

Whenever a customer responds with a rating that’s higher than your average star rating on Yelp, politely thank them and ask if they wouldn’t mind sharing their experience with others on Yelp. (This is a violation of Yelp’s “Don’t Ask” policy, but will yield much better conversion rates, so you’ll get far more reviews than if you use Yelp’s indirect approach.)

When asking for a review, be sure to include a link that takes the customer directly to your Yelp profile’s “Write a review” page. (Yelp may view this link as a violation of their policies, although that is unclear. But a link that goes directly to the “Write a review” page will give customers a much better experience and result in much higher conversion rates. So you’ll get more reviews with a link to the “Write a review” page than if you use a link that only goes to your main Yelp business profile page.)

This approach will result in a higher star rating on Yelp and a lot more reviews than any other approach.

However, it comes at a cost… the risk that Yelp may take issue with the fact that you are violating Yelp’s policies.

If Yelp chooses to take issue with policy violations, Yelp might take any of the following actions:

  • Send you a warning email notifying you of the violation and requesting that you stop
  • Suddenly filter out many of your legitimate reviews from authentic, happy customers
  • Revoke your ability to manage your account (We haven’t heard of anyone have this happen so far, but it’s theoretically within Yelp’s rights if they ever choose to do this.)

Ultimately, you must weigh the risk vs reward to decide how much (or if at all) you want to violate Yelp’s unreasonable policies.