Are Your Competitors Gaming Yelp?

Here are four things to look for to determine whether a review of your small business is legit or the work of a competitor.
October 29, 2012

If you run a business that deals directly with the public, you’re probably well aware of Yelp. The hugely influential review site that posts consumer reviews of local businesses was founded in 2004, and since then its reach and influence has grown exponentially. Even a half-star increase in a business’ aggregate Yelp score can mean a dramatic uptick in sales. This potential for increased revenue—coupled with the site’s populist nature and easy-to-navigate design—has made Yelp the go-to place for people who want to know if a business is worth patronizing. And businesses are paying attention.

But as Yelp becomes more popular, sos have attempts to game the system. By taking advantage of the anonymous nature of the site, shady businesses have been known to pay reviewers for positive reviews or to place negative reviews on competitor’s sites, wrecking the supposed “wisdom of the crowd.” Yelp is fighting back, branding offending businesses with a scarlet letter. But is the fraud more widespread than Yelp has acknowledged? Almost certainly. That’s why it’s up to businesses themselves to do some fact-checking.

To begin to understand both how Yelp is evolving (and how it affects your bottom line), figure out what’s “real” on Yelp and what isn’t. Because while only a handful of businesses have been officially outed as cheaters, it’s no secret that many, many more are engaging in unethical crowdsourcing tactics.

So what are these red flags that signal a business’ Yelp reviews might not be on the up and up?

1. Overly negative reviews that sound more like a gulag than a business. Anonymity gives people the license to be the absolute worst versions of themselves. And when that anonymity is coupled with a desire to right a perceived wrong, Yelp reviews can get outlandishly vicious: “The worst experience of my life!”, “I literally died!” Yelp tries to filter out the most inflammatory comments, shifting them onto a completely separate page. But the filters aren’t perfect at detecting rationality—or reviewers who have been paid to be extra irrational.

The psychology behind this is simple: people don’t usually shout from the mountaintops when they’re pleasantly pleased with something. But people—and as you restaurateurs know, hungry people especially—tend to extremes when voicing perceived injustices. These one-star reviews should be taken with a grain of salt. If they are patently untrue, it doesn’t hurt to contact Yelp to attempt a fix.

2. Vague reviews that have a familiar ring. For a period of time one shady site offered to deliver enthusiastic reviews to your Yelp page, for the seemingly low, low price of $495.  While the quality of fake reviews varies greatly, they both signify the same thing: baloney. Scammers, whether high or low quality (some robo-writers are getting very, very little in return for their efforts), tend to engage in the same tactics. It’s usually only worth the fake reviewer’s time to copy and paste a previous review and change the scantest details. And you can be positive they’ve never visited the business in question.

Be wary of short, cliché-ridden reviews (“A positive experience, would go back again!”), a lack of details for that specific business, or otherwise vague claims that sound like they could apply to either a car wash, a chicken shack, or a jewelry store. If a business’ Yelp site is overly bland in its praises or its negativity, something’s up.

3. One-time reviewers. When a reviewer has only posted one review, you can’t necessarily assume he or she has an ulterior motive. But it’s certainly a hallmark of someone with either an axe to grind or, if positive, a sock puppet account of the business owner.

While Yelp’s algorithm usually delegates these to the troll bin, many still make it through. And while many of these rookie reviewers do have legitimate concerns, most should be met with a healthy dose of skepticism.

4. Reviewer’s history is almost entirely positive or entirely negative. The guy who has never patronized a business that isn’t the worst place in the universe? Ignore. While this may seem like common sense, these things sometimes slip by Yelp’s algorithm, and are worth checking out yourself.

If you notice one of these trends popping up on your business’ Yelp page, it certainly doesn’t hurt to respond, diplomatically, to the review. If the behavior persists, do some investigation, and contact Yelp about obvious abuses. The influence of crowdsourced reviewers is growing, but that crowd can get addled by duplicitous reviews. Do what you can to help keep the “wisdom of the crowd” genuine.

Jacob Harper co-founded the Vintage Vice clothing store and apparel brand in 2006 when he was 23. He sold Vintage Vice in 2009 and now works as a teacher and writer.