I recently had lunch with some of my friends who own an advertising agency and a public relations firm. The Yelp topic came up. Afterall, the main reason we chose to eat at this particular restaurant was because of all of its great reviews. But, then the topic changed to how Yelp’s business model has changed over the past year and how it is beginning to ruin small businesses. I want to share these stories with readers who may identify and would like to ask you to contact me if your business has been adversely affected by negative reviews left on Yelp by customers, x-employees or possibly even your business competition.
My public relations friend has a landscaping company that she’s worked with for nearly three years. She noticed that last month, one of the customers left a scathing review for her client’s work. She called her client and asked what happened and he told her the customer was a business terrorist, there was no pleasing him, he made multiple changes and didn’t expect to pay extra for the changes… the list went on and on. This customer not only left a review for my friend’s client, but it seems he makes it his business to leave negative reviews about other businesses as well. He’s a chronic complainer. He even leaves a bad review if a business owner doesn’t call him back within a day’s time! It’s no wonder no one would want to do business with this man.
But, my friend pointed out something very interesting that I was unaware of. In the negative review the client left for the landscaping business, he uses the business owner’s first and last name which is against the Terms of Service and Content Guidelines set by Yelp. My friend flagged the review and contacted Yelp about removing the review because it violated Yelp’s Terms of Service. Yelp responded to her a few days later and said they were leaving the review and would not remove it. They only suggested that the business owner respond to the comments made by the customer / client -- a more or less “his side of the story” response.
So, my friend’s public relations firm took it one step further and hired an attorney so that Yelp could be put on notice to abide by its own written policies. The attorney pointed out that Yelp was not enforcing it owns Terms of Service and requested the review to be removed because of the customer’s violation of using the business owner’s first and last name throughout the review. Yelp did nothing! Meanwhile, the client hasn’t received any calls, his business is just about dead, and no one will work with him… all because of one scathing negative review.
My other friend, who owns an advertising agency, had a similar story to tell. Her client owns a restaurant. Everyone knows that restaurants with good reviews on Yelp can make or break a sold out Friday or Saturday night. However, a scathing negative review was posted by a reviewer that was over a page long. It took up so much space, that only two other smaller reviews could be seen on page one of the restaurant’s listing on Yelp. What was once a thriving restaurant business became virtually dead overnight. The past three weekends, hardly anyone was in this restaurant. To make matters worse, the review used the owner’s first and last name (which is a violation of the terms and services of posting on Yelp) and mentioned the restaurant’s hiring practices. The ad agency flagged the review and contacted Yelp and requested the review to be removed, but they would not do it.
What it comes down to is this: should a customer that leaves a bad review be held responsible in the event the business is adversely affected? What can business owners do in order to protect their business from these business terrorists?
I did a little research on this and was pleasantly surprised to hear that there are “reputation management” companies that take care of this sort of thing..., well sorta’. However, when I called a few of them and explained the situation, they said they wouldn’t be able to help get a negative review removed. Instead, they suggested to contact customers and ask if they would leave a Yelp review. This could “bury” the negative review that was left earlier. Interestingly, when my friend’s client was successful at convincing his customers to leave a review on his landscaping business, the review was placed UNDER the negative review even though the new review was more recent.
Three other bonafide reviews ended up being "filtered." So, once again, Yelp’s playing with their own set of rules. Reviews now left for businesses on Yelp are no longer listed in chronological order. And, if you rely on Yelp’s reviews for making a decision of where you should spend your hard-earned money, you might end up totally wasting your money. Don't believe everything you read on Yelp. If the review causes you to question the contractor, tell the contractor you read the negative review and see how he/she responds. It's better to be up front and honest and that way there won't be any misunderstandings later. Chances are, you'll hear the other side of the story and then you can conclude and make your own decision as to whether or not you want to do business with that business.
Does this leave the only option that the business owner must take matters in their own hands and sue the reviewer for posting his dealings on a public website? Does the Freedom of Speech allow individuals to bash a business with the intent to destroy it but without consequence? Reviewers need to understand that you own your own words and you can be held accountable for them. Take for instance the $750,000 defamation of character lawsuit filed by a Virginia housing contractor against a customer that left a negative review on Yelp. The reviewer claimed that jewelry was missing from her home and that the contractor caused damage to her home. This went beyond warning others of her experience with the contractor.
Yelp claims it is not liable for its users’ postings, yet why isn’t Yelp enforcing its own Terms of Service? Why are so many reviews left to be seen that have the owner’s personal and private information in front of the world to see? Here are some of the Content Guidelines taken directly from Yelp’s website:
Privacy: Don't publicize other people's private information. Please don't post close-up photos of other people without their permission, and please don't post other people's full names unless you're referring to service providers who are commonly identified by their full names.
Our group has come to the conclusion that this must be happening to a lot of business owners and not just the two businesses from our city. If you’re a business owner and have had a similar situation happen to your business, please contact me and tell me what you did in order to get the review removed by Yelp. Or, if you are a business owner that’s been damaged by Yelp, please let me know. I want to hear from you and perhaps share your story with my readers.
Perhaps with enough people complaining about Yelp, a class action suit will form in order to get Yelp to change the way it does business and to follow their own listing guidelines. Or better yet, maybe they should just be a review site for restaurants and let "Angie" be for the contractors.
One thing for certain is, if you’re a Yelp poster, remember what your mother always told you, “if you don’t have something nice to say about somebody, then don’t say nothing at all.” Otherwise, you might just end up losing your house over it.