Understanding Yelp | A Primer for Small Businesses

If you are a business owner reading this article, it is probably because you are angry with Yelp and are looking around the Internet for solutions to a problem that Yelp has created for you.

You probably have a strong sense of grievance against Yelp. In fact, you probably think Yelp is evil — and in that you may not be entirely wrong.

My guess is that you have some bad reviews showing on your business’ Yelp page that are hurting your reputation. So you are now seeking a way to rectify that situation.

If that is the case, then I have good news for you.

There is a solution to your problem. It is not an easy solution, mind you. It is not an overnight fix. It is not a fix you can buy nor is it a simple cheat, like a secret game code.

I am going to give you the answer below. I will not charge your for it but I will ask that you pay it forward by doing something nice for somebody other than yourself after I teach you what to do.

That’s it. No charge. Just do something nice for a small business owner who needs the same kind of help you do.

Before we get to that, however, I want to take a look at your business.

What Yelp Values

If your business is anything like mine, you sell stuff. It might be food or haircuts or sporting goods — like me. It might even be cement by the truckload. But whatever it is, you sell something.

Whatever you sell, you sell it to people who give you currency. It might be digital currency. It might dollars or yen or pesos, but it is currency in one form or another. The amount you get from your customers in each transaction is more than the amount each transaction costs you.

Assuming all of that, how would you feel if one of your customers paid you in counterfeit currency. Or imagine how you would feel if they paid you 100 MXN instead of 100 USD. As of this moment, 100 MXN (100 pesos) equals $5.39 USD, so I am guessing you would not be happy.

The point is not all currency has the same value. If you have a choice, you would prefer to be paid in US dollars over Mexican pesos. And you would prefer Mexican pesos over counterfeit currency because counterfeit currency is worthless.

What is true for your business is equally true for Yelp’s business. Like you and I, Yelp trades services for currency. The difference is that their currency is reviews. Whether those reviews are for a restaurant or a garden store doesn’t matter. Reviews are reviews.

In Yelp’s world, fake reviews are counterfeit currency and shitty reviews are pesos. As a business, Yelp wants what you want. They want US dollars, which in their world are genuine reviews from real people who check in and post attractive photos.

If you come to Yelp with a fistful of US dollars they will like you. If you come to them regularly with fists full of US dollars, they will love you.

What Yelp Sells

Pretty much everybody who works for Yelp is a volunteer. I don’t mean their sales staff or their managers or their overpaid executives. I mean their writers. Yelp does not pay their writers.

They give them recognition. They give them attention. They even give them swag sometimes. But they don’t give them cash.

This core of volunteer writers, in their millions, produce the products that Yelp then turns into cash. The writers produce content. Content draws readers. Yelp sells access to these readers for cash.

As a business owner who wants to benefit from access to Yelp’s readers, you have to make a choice. One way or another, you have to pay for access. You can either pay cash or you can volunteer. Doing nothing is not an option because Yelp doesn’t allow free riders.

Now having said all of that, I need you to understand something else about Yelp. Understanding this is essential if you want to solve your Yelp problem. What you must understand is this: not all content is of equal value.

What Yelp Needs

Fake content, like counterfeit currency or a fake Rolex, is worthless. Yelp gets a lot of fake content, but they have a way to handle it. They simply hide it.

Slightly better than fake content is shitty content. Now pay attention here. Shitty content does not equal bad reviews and good content does not equal good reviews. A well-written one-star review is good content. A poorly written five-star review is shitty content.

If you take a close look at Yelp’s front page, you will notice that you don’t see a lot of shitty content. That’s because they try to hide most this content where customers won’t see it.

Racist rants, horrible spelling, inarticulate sentence structure, potato quality images … all of these count as shitty content. So do short reviews, overly hostile reviews, and reviews that say nothing about a genuine customer experience.

So let me ask you a question that might help you relate to this as a business owmer. If you fill the showroom floor of your auto dealership with dilapidated old rust buckets on bald tires, what kind of customers would you attract? Good ones? Bad ones? Now take that same showroom and fill it with shiny new luxury cars. Would your customer base change? Of course it would.

Yelp doesn’t want any rusty-ass-hunks-of-junk on their showroom floor. And with millions of new pieces of content flowing into their website everyday, they don’t have to put it there. To some extent, in most markets at least, they can pick and choose the best content to put in their showrooms.

Yelp is not Craig’s list. Or for Canadians, Yelp is not Kijiji. And it is certainly not 4chan. Yelp is not a flea market. It is a boutique with high standards. They want good content and they have thousands of volunteer writers — called their Elite Squad — that can give it to them.

So do not imagine for a minute that you are going to be able to sneak fake reviews or rusty reviews on bald tires past their front door into their showroom. Yelp’s buyer — their algorithm — screens every piece of content as it comes in. The best reviews go on the front shelves. Weak reviews are kept mostly out of sight and anything that looks like a fake or a knock off, goes straight into the trash.

If you want to do business with Yelp, you have to bring one of two things to the table. You can bring either cash or content.

Cash, in this metaphor, is advertising dollars. Content is content. In other words, you can pay with cash or you can pay with content, but the content better be good enough for Yelp to turn in to cash or forget about it. Just walk away.

Content is Yelp’s big weakness. They need content as a refinery needs oil. Just as a refinery turns oil into gasoline, Yelp turns content into cash. So you are either supplying the oil or buying the gasoline. Or, if you are capable of producing oil, you can do a little of both.

Scam or Scheme?

Now before I go too far with this particular metaphor, I need to make something else clear. Although many people have accused Yelp of being a scam, nobody has proven that claim in court. At this point, Yelp is more scheme than scam. The word scam implies an intent to defraud while scheme is just an simile for business.

I’m in the camp that sees Yelp as a business, not a crime. It’s a big business. It’s a smart business. It might even be a wholly unethical business, but it is a business notwithstanding. So as one business owner speaking to another business owner about a larger, more powerful business, I am going to advise you to treat Yelp like you treat the phone company. Bitch all you want, but don’t forget to pay your bill.

I will also advise you to avoid the temptation of paying your bill with counterfeit currency because doing that will end badly — for you.

Want to fix your problem? Become part of the solution.

My advice to you is simple: join Yelp.

A Win, Win, Win Strategy

Join Yelp, complete your account, post genuine reviews of other small businesses just like yours and encourage other business owners to do the same thing.

Do not review your own business. Do not review your competitors. Do not even review other businesses in your own category.

I am not suggesting that you trade reviews with other businesses. That would not be organic. Yelp’s buyer — their infamous algorithm — would see right through that and you would be punished.

What I am advising you to do is to build up the excellent reputation of your business through something I call Yelp diplomacy. Be generous with Yelp reviews and encourage other business owners to do the same thing. In other words, pay it forward and wait for someone else to pay it forward to you.

That is a win, win, win strategy. The deserving business you review wins because they get a positive review. Yelp wins because they get genuine content. And you win because eventually someone will pay it forward to you.

How can you be sure of this? Post a photo on your account that clearly shows your face. When you go into the store, make sure you speak directly to somebody in charge. Don’t be afraid to bring up Yelp. Then submit a review immediately after your visit.

Chances are, they will follow up with you by responding to your review on Yelp. When they do, that opens the door for you to respond by sharing this article with them. You can say something like: “No problem at all. I read this article about how small business owners should stick together and then I saw your Yelp rating. I know you run a great business and figured I should take a few minutes to help you out. Hope you have a great day.”

Leave it at that. Don’t say another word. Don’t be crass. Don’t to ask for anything in return. Besides being against Yelp’s rules, asking for a positive review in return would be unseemly. You are better off to say nothing and let your actions speak for themselves.

If the business owner you just helped has any brains at all, they will understand that a failure to pay it forward to another small business may result in a deleted review, which is exactly how we can all begin to solve our Yelp problem collectively.

My own strategy is simple. Whenever I get a five star Yelp review, I write two positive reviews for businesses who deserve them. So far, I haven’t run of out of businesses to review. One day I might, but until then I will do what I can to pay it forward.