Who Do You Trust?

You’re out and about and it’s time to eat. You’re not in the mood for fast food, but you’re not sure what else is available nearby. What do you do?

If you’re like millions of other people, you whip out your phone, run a quick search for nearby restaurants and check Yelp to see how the reviews look. The trouble is, that may not give you the full story.

Though clearly the 800-pound gorilla of online review sites, Yelp has had its share of controversy and scandal, especially in recent months. It started with an increasing number of business owners accusing Yelp of everything from unfairly filtering reviews through outright extortion. It was all anecdotal, but at some point complaints become numerous enough that they start looking like they have substance. MakeUseOf recently featured the mess, including this thumbnail sketch of how things seemed to play out all too often:

The story is always the same:
– Yelp approaches a business and asks if they want to advertise with Yelp for a modest price.
– If the business declines, Yelp pursues them with more aggression.
– If the business still declines, their Yelp rating plummets as their 4- and 5-star reviews become filtered for no apparent reason.
Not surprisingly, this story also flows the other way:
– Yelp approaches a business and asks if they want to advertise with Yelp for a modest price.
– If the business accepts, they pay the fees.
– Coincidentally, they begin receiving good reviews that boost their rating while having poor reviews filtered out.

This story — or a similar version of it — played out so many times that a lawsuit was finally brought against the company to force them to cease and desist these alleged practices. The verdict was rendered earlier this fall, with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruling in favor of Yelp’s ability to legally manipulate its ratings to earn more money.

On the one hand, this makes some sense. After all, Yelp is a publicly traded company, and that means its purpose is to earn money for its shareholders. There are many companies — and indeed some entire industries — that exist and thrive in an ethical gray area, many of which could easily be said to be much worse than this. However, on the other hand, for a site whose sole purpose is to provide legitimate reviews to consumers on behalf of businesses to manipulate those reviews in a way that looks a whole lot like extortion, well, it just doesn’t pass the smell test.

Yelp steadfastly maintains its innocence, claiming it uses an automated system to promote and demote businesses based on their star rankings, and there isn’t really any hard evidence of wrongdoing (the 9th Circuit merely ruled that it would be legal if Yelp chose to manipulate its reviews, not that they actually were manipulating them). Are there plenty of valid reviews on Yelp, and is it still useful as a tool to guide consumers to the best products and services? Certainly. Is this a problem unique to Yelp? Certainly not.

In fact, the same arguments can likely be made about any major review service, and finding legitimate, fair, and honest reviews will probably remain a challenge for as long as human civilization exists. But, in the meantime, there are other options. Urbanspoon is an obvious alternative for food choices. TripAdvisor is focused on visitors, but the information is just as valid for locals, too. Major search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing generally provide review information on restaurants, events, and many other things. Angie’s List is another big name in the industry, trying to solve the review problem by requiring a paid subscription to use the service, and a more stringent review vetting process (though the same accusations have plagued it in the past, too). There are many others, some based on location, some based on a topic, and some based on nothing at all. Search around and try some new sites; you may be pleasantly surprised.

At the end of the day, this mess with Yelp should be at minimum a cautionary tale to both business owners and consumers alike. Small businesses can spend a lot of time and effort trying to appease online reviewers, and to do so for reviews that are deliberately squelched or unfairly manipulated is both costly and maddening. Similarly, consumers may miss a high quality business simply because it has run afoul of a review service, or go to a business expecting one thing and getting something entirely different, causing an equally maddening experience. The bottom line is that online reviews should always be viewed with a giant grain of salt. If you want to be really thorough, it’s probably best to use multiple services to check any business. It should probably go without saying, of course, that asking people you know with first hand experience of those businesses is perhaps the best way to go because they’re not trying to make money off of their recommendation. Of course, their recommendation may depend on what they think of you, but that’s an entirely different subject…

Reputation Management: TripAdvisor, Google Places, and Yelp

Traditional social media provides us with our own bullhorn.  We can share information with current clients, engage with potential new ones, and develop colleagues and resources in our own respective industries.  Three specific sites turn this situation around and hand the bullhorn over to your clients in a way that is less in your control than the medium of facebook, twitter, etc. is.

Perhaps you don’t know about these sites, namely TripAdvisor, Google Places, or Yelp.  You think you may not acquire customers from there.  And perhaps you are right.  But you need to at least claim and manage your pages so that you are in a position to answer whatever may be said about you on those sites.  Potential customers, for better or worse, will read these reviews; remember that the conversation about your business is already going on in social media.  You just have to decide if you want to be part of that discussion.

Step 1: Claim your page

Each website will be different.  For Google Places, you will likely be able to simply type in your business name and city and watch your business pop up on the right side.

petit villiers shotFor my example I’ve chosen my favorite French restaurant in my arrondissement in Paris.  At the very bottom of my screen shot you will see “People also search for” and some pictures.  Below that you will a very small line of text that asks, “Are you the business owner?”  Click on that and work through the registration process.

To make it easy for yourself remember to use the same email address for all of these sites, use the same pictures, and make sure you are putting out the same message.

If you already see ratings – and some that you don’t like – don’t get distracted!  Get registered first and then we will have time to go back and address some of those disgruntled customers.

For Yelp you can click here to start by registering for a business account and then you’ll be guided through to search for your business.

Now – do you need a TripAdvisor account?  Only if your business is travel related – or you are a restaurant.  Restaurants even in cities that are not “tourist stops” get reviewed on TripAdvisor so make sure you have one.  If you are a salon in the middle of nowhere, then you can probably skip TripAdvisor.  Otherwise click here to get started.

Step 2: Encourage customers to review, in order to get you “started”

All of the review sites have additional features to allow you promote your business more.  Because some of them have been accused of “extorting” owners they take a very abstract approach of the idea of asking for reviews.  Yelp has more than once blogged about “not asking for reviews.”  This is, of course, ridiculous.  This is like saying, “well, if you like the wine, just downplay it like you’ve had better before and be hipster-ish about it.”  I’m sorry, Yelp, business owners have been asking customers for referrals since Medieval times and your website’s existence doesn’t change the rules.  There’s no harm in telling a customer, “Hey, if you liked your experience, please review us online – we would really appreciate it.”  The aforementioned blog article mentions business owners whipping out a laptop and putting it in front of a customer with the Yelp page pulled up or talk of “bribing for reviews.”  Look, there are unethical people out there and sure people do this stuff, but to paint it as normative, and then write a blog article explaining why you shouldn’t ask for reviews because of it?  It just doesn’t make any sense.

If you have particularly loyal customers, encourage them to go on there and leave you a review.  Don’t tell them what to say, don’t let them do the, “you write it up and I’ll sign it” move.  Tell them they have to write it because it’s gotta come from them.  Ask once or twice and then leave it be.  That’s as organic as it gets.  Think of it as “priming,” because after that you’ll just be dealing with reviews, good and bad, as they come.

Step 3: Maintain and communicate

Look, not everyone is going to be happy.  That’s part of life on this beautiful planet.  But potential customers care about how YOU respond to the complaint, not just about the complaint itself.  Take a look at this response from a comic book store owner.

pop culture comixInstead of letting himself get angry he explained his position clearly and thoughtfully.  He made it clear that he wanted to earn any business given to him and made it clear that he really doesn’t know who had left the review.  Was this a perfect response?  No, but we aren’t always perfect.  What was great about it was that he took the time to respond so now it’s on the customer to decide what he/she wants to believe or do with the information given.

If you have specials or coupons you want to share – these pages are great places to do it.  All the websites give you mechanisms to share “specials.”  Also upload photos – the more people can “see” you and your business the more they will trust you and be comfortable.

Step 4: Relax and make maintenance of these pages part of your social media routine

Remember that 50% of social media is just showing up consistently.  If you don’t have a social media strategy, we need to talk.  If you do – great – just fold maintenance of these pages into your daily social media routine – and find ways to put “find us on Yelp” etc, like this business does right at the top of its home page.

Good luck, and don’t put this off.  Chances are there are already comments on these pages – for good or ill – that you haven’t responded to…yet!