Marketing for Shops: Does Yelp Bully Body Shops?

Marketing for Shops: Does Yelp Bully Body Shops?

Some shops have told me Yelp is unfair, unless they’re willing to buy an advertising plan for $300-$500 or more.

Shop owners aren’t fond of it, but they realize Yelp isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Some try to ignore Yelp altogether while others seemingly live and die with each review, so it’s always a hot topic amongst small business owners.

Years ago, I heard a representative from Yelp who was invited to speak at a California Autobody Association (CAA) meeting in San Jose, CA. After his brief presentation, there was a question-and-answer session and at one point I thought - I hope they don’t lynch this poor guy! Many of the shop owners in attendance vented their many grievances about Yelp, including the authenticity of reviews and preferential treatment for shops that buy advertising.

The controversy surrounding Yelp was re-ignited with the recent release of Billion Dollar Bully, a new documentary about Yelp that you can watch on Amazon and iTunes. It claims that Yelp extorts small business owners for advertising fees in return for promoting positive reviews and hiding negative ones.

The film opens with Davide Cerretini, owner of Botto Italian Pizza Bistro in Richmond, CA, who claims that Yelp’s salespeople called him 20 times a week pressuring him to advertise on the platform. They finally wore him down and he signed up for a six-month contract, which he didn’t renew. Once he stopped paying for advertising, Cerretini claims his positive Yelp reviews vanished, only to be replaced with new and mysterious negative reviews. “To me, this is the mafia,” Cerretini says in the film.

A few years ago, Nielsen conducted a study and the numbers were pro-Yelp.

  • 88 percent of customers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations.
  • 85 percent of consumers read online reviews.
  • Yelp gets 142 million monthly visitors and 77 million local reviews in industries ranging from auto repair to food and entertainment.
  • 98 percent of Yelp users report making a purchase at a business they found on Yelp, with 85 percent doing so within seven days and 27 percent doing so within one day.
  • 80 percent of Yelp users visit the site with the intention of buying a product or service.
  • Consumers consider Yelp to be the most trustworthy, influential online review site with the highest quality reviews.

So, we reached out to Yelp and asked them the big question—do you extort small businesses or manipulate their system? Their short answer was an emphatic no, but the longer explanation came in a document from Yelp that addressed many issues.

“We understand that there are a lot of misconceptions out there, so we’re here to clear the air: the only thing you can buy on Yelp is advertising, not reviews or stars,” Yelp said. “Here’s what money won’t buy any business owner on Yelp: A higher rating, the removal of negative reviews and positive reviews.”

Does Yelp show more favorable reviews for advertisers or penalize non-advertisers?

“Advertising (or not advertising) on Yelp has no impact on reviews,” stated in Yelp’s document. “This is core to our trusted relationships with users and businesses alike, and it’s a principle on which we never compromise. These claims have been investigated and rejected in multiple courtrooms and disproven by independent scholarly studies.”

Yelp then also offered some methods for interacting with reviewers for best results:

“If a review has incorrect information, this is a good chance to correct it,” according to Yelp. “While you should always take the high road and respond considerately, correcting incorrect information is okay. Remember, it’s not just what you say but how you say it. Since everyone can see your public comment, respond in a way that will impress your potential customers."

“Responding to a review with critical feedback can be tricky," said Yelp. "You want to act quickly because it’ll improve your chance to turn the situation around, but also take your time to think of the right thing to say. First, read the review. Then reread the review. Reread it again. On your third take, start looking for the value. Ask yourself: What did the customer expect? Why did they expect that? Where was the misunderstanding? Why did that occur? What changes can I make to make sure this situation doesn’t happen again?"

“After rereading the review a few times, you’ll almost always find helpful information," Yelp added. "Looking at difficult feedback as an insight into how you can improve will make a big difference. It will help you craft your response. It’s a good idea to start with a public response that includes a thank you, even if you disagree with the review. Look at it this way; the reviewer took the time to share what went wrong. There are lots of consumers who won’t take the time to give you those insights. Your reviewers are giving you the chance to improve.”

So, is Yelp a buddy or a bully? If we believe in their statement, they are more of a friend than a foe, but there are tons of companies out there slamming them. If you’re on the fence about Yelp, watch Billion Dollar Bully, a horror film for any small business owner anywhere, and be careful.

Ed Attanasio

Ed Attanasio is an automotive journalist and Autobody News columnist based in San Francisco.

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